Category Archives: Sport

Fetishisation of spending the root of all our ills

This is, perhaps, the single greatest article I’ve ever read about sport, or perhaps even anything!

Nominally, the article notes that “Transfer Deadline Day” has become a huge footballing event in its own right (rivalling Cup Finals and such like), even though actually all it is is the day which determines how much money various teams have spent. Supporters watch events unfold as if merely buying a player whose wages would pay for 140 nurses is the cure of all their ills. It is ludicrous. In fact it’s a moral crime, and not a victimless crime at that.

The article nailed my discomfort at “Transfer Deadline Day” perfectly. It was a discomfort I had never previously been able to nail (and thus never previously been able to put into writing). Yet I cannot help but feel it is the same discomfort I feel at Christmas.

For, when you think about it, Christmas is an awful lot like “Transfer Deadline Day”. Ultimately the objective is for people, predominantly children, to compare notes on how much their parents have spent, not unlike supporters comparing notes on how much their clubs have spent. Crudely, it is as if by buying loads of “stuff” we can deliver stability, love and affection; the same way that buying a £50 million player is supposed to guarantee trophies. In the same way managers don’t want to let supporters down by buying no one (even if there’s no one worth buying really), parents don’t like to let children down by not spending hundreds of pounds on a raft of Christmas presents (even if the child already has every X-box, iPhone and lego set going). The very term used in the article, the “fetishisation of spending”, sums it all up. It’s morally corrupt and it is the fundamental cause of all our economic (and arguably social) ills.

Again, the article on “Transfer Deadline Day” makes the point that clubs are recklessly spending our money – the money we spend at the turnstiles, on the shirts, or on the TV subscriptions (at least I have abandoned the latter in disgust, though not yet the first two I confess); and the money we lavish on the advertisers who keep it all going (not least at Christmas). Likewise at Christmas, the billions spent are mostly wasted – a huge proportion on “stuff” children never needed and never subsequently touch – when they could be put to far better use in our health service, in our schools or in assisting job creation. But let’s be clear: we choose this madness!

It is a madness which is grossly unfair too, of course. Clubs such as Leeds have gone bust trying to keep up with Manchester United despite lacking its resources; much more seriously, thousands of families across the British Isles go bust every year buying “stuff” for Christmas trying to keep up with people who earn considerably more than they do. Yet again, those at the poorer end of the spectrum suffer most.

It would be interesting to set up a movement, as happens in one edition of Family Guy of all things, to buy just one Christmas present per person. This would have the benefit of limiting peer pressure and ensuring people could remain within their means without feeling that they are somehow letting their children down. Who knows, it may even lead us recognise that there is more to Christmas, and indeed life, than “getting stuff”!

What we do about football is where I have no ideas – but it is a somewhat lesser concern, and we could start by remembering that too!

Frampton a real role model

FramptonWhat a magnificent image… a world champion and family man. And he’s from inner-city Belfast.

I must say I prefer my boxing amateur, but nothing takes away from this fabulous story of a local fighter from a tough background who earned – and earned is the word – support from the entire community.

It is yet further proof that we can be the best when we put our mind to it. That includes people from the inner city, who are no worse than the rest of us. They all now have a contemporary role model to prove it. They have a hard-working family man of immense dignity, immense civility, and immense humility. He just happens to be the best in the world at what he does.

Best of all was the fact Carl Frampton’s daughter was at the fight because they “couldn’t find a baby sitter”! What could be more fabulously, positively, hilariously Belfast than that?!

What are golf’s “major” championships?

At the conclusion of the final major championship of the year in men’s golf, it seems reasonable to ask – what is a major championship?

The four major championships – chronologically each year the Masters Tournament, the US Open Championship, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship – are regarded as the pinnacle of the game, with golfers often assessed predominantly by how many of them they win (or at least challenge in).

However, the key point is that, historically, the current four majors were not so regarded. There is a tendency to judge past greats – such as Gene Sarazen or Ben Hogan – by the number of current major championships they won. This does not do justice to the fact that, when they played, what constituted a “major championship” was somewhat different. In fact, the term itself was scarcely used!

In 2014, the current major championships are officially recognised. Each carries more ranking points than any other tournament, and each is recognised by all the game’s main professional tours. However, this is comparatively recent.

The story starts in 1930, perhaps, with Bobby Jones’ completion of the quadruple – the Amateur Championship, the Open Championship, the US Amateur Championship and the US Open Championship all in one year. This was remarkable as it involved significant trans-Atlantic travel at his own expense – and he won not a penny for his endeavours. Thus, he soon quit the game but left a further indelible mark by founding the Masters Tournament in 1934, which immediately attracted all the game’s best professionals due to its prestigious founder.

By the late 1950s, the United States was the only country which could support a fully professional tour. Its best players generally regarded the Masters Tournament and the US Open (the oldest tournament played in the Americas) as the most prestigious events to win, but they had no formal status. The Western Open, the North and South Open and the PGA Championship were also deemed notably prestigious. However, top American professionals had begun not to bother crossing the Atlantic to play even the Open Championship (the oldest tournament of all) because the purse was much lower and thus only the winner could expect to cover the cost of the trip. Additionally, the Open was played under different rules (even the balls were a different size) and, in any case, often clashed with the PGA Championship. As a consequence, the Open became more of a Commonwealth title, typically won by golfers from South Africa or Australasia (Max Faulkner’s win at Portrush in 1951 was the last by a Briton until 1969).

This changed dramatically in 1960 when Arnold Palmer, the “Tiger” or “Rory” of his era, won both the Masters and US Open. He opted to cross the Atlantic to play the Open, declaring that he had to win the “British Open” (as the Americans called it) and the PGA Championship to match Bobby Jones and complete what he called a “modern Grand Slam” (a term actually borrowed from the card game Bridge). The challenge thus accepted, he missed out on that year’s Open by one stroke (but won it the subsequent two years), and never in fact won the PGA.

It is reasonable to credit Palmer with saving the Open Championship’s prestige, and also with establishing the PGA Championship as the fourth title required for a “Grand Slam”. However, it was still some time before the term “major” was used for a tournament which would contribute to a Grand Slam, and still longer before the game’s authorities formalised this status. It remained the case that majors taking place in the United States were always won by Americans – post-War until 1979 only South Africa’s Gary Player and England’s Tony Jacklin won majors as foreigners in the United States. The (“British”) Open was more competitive, often won by Australians and even by Argentinean Roberto di Vicenzo (as well as, as it happened, by Player and Jacklin).

Tony Jacklin turned into something of a pivotal figure. He won the Open in 1969 and the US Open at a canter in 1970. He was involved in “the Concession”, securing a half against the legendary Jack Nicklaus to ensure the Ryder Cup (then played between the United States and the British Isles) was halved in 1969 – one of only two occasions post-War until the extension of the matches to include continental Europe that the Americans didn’t win. Jacklin repeatedly challenged for majors over the next few years until a crushing blow at the 1972 (where his three-putt on the 17th matched by Mexican-American Lee Trevino’s holing of a bunker shot allowed the latter to win) destroyed him psychologically as a player aged just 28. He was to return, however…

Enter, in 1979, a young man named Severiano Ballesteros. It seems unbelievable now, but no Continental European had played Ryder Cup until he and Manuel Pinero did in 1979; no Continental European had won a major until he won the Open that same year; and no European of any description had won the Masters Tournament until he did so the following year. He won both tournaments again in the early 1980s before West German Bernard Langer won the Masters too in 1985. Both were pillars in the European team which finally won a Ryder Cup that same year, and then condemned the Americans to their first ever home defeat two years later – the team captain was a certain Tony Jacklin. The Continental challenge saw the emergence of more competitive British players too – Anglo-Scot Sandy Lyle won the Open in 1985 and Englishman Nick Faldo repeated the feat two years later. Major tournaments were now established as global events (the only tournaments which attracted all the best players from all over the world) – but still lacked official standing as such. Challenged on what constituted the difference between a “major” and any other tournament, Lyle responded simply “About 100 years”.

It was Lyle whose famous fairway bunker shot to eight feet secured the UK its first ever Masters win in 1988 – it then won four in a row, as it happened. The authorities had to respond to all of this, installing “Official World Golf Rankings” in 1986 and then securing recognition of “majors” by all main tours over the next decade – meaning that money earned at a major counted towards any Tour’s total, not just the one which happened to host it.

Majors are no longer the only tournaments which attract the best players from all over the world. Four “World Golf Championship” (WGC) events – the Championship, the Matchplay, the Invitational and the Champions Event – now also do, and this is also reflected in rankings points (they count for more than a regular event but less than a “major”). The US Tour’s predominant tournament, known as The Players’ Championship, attracts a similar field and similar rankings points (sometimes even earning reference as the “unofficial fifth major”). The European Tour’s own PGA Championship is also worth extra rankings points, although rarely attracts quite the same strength of field.

For all that, the pre-eminent position of “majors” was well established by 2008, almost half a century on from Palmer’s intervention. Yet in all that time, despite dominating the Ryder Cup, only one European had won the US Open and none the PGA Championship. Enter the Irish, with Southerner Padraig Harrington winning the 2008 PGA and Northerner Graeme McDowell winning the 2010 US Open. Fellow Northerner Rory McIlroy of course trumped them by winning both over the next two years; German Martin Kaymer has also won both, and Englishman Justin Rose also added a US Open in 2013. This is an astonishingly sudden European breakthrough.

Majors have also now become truly global. In recent years Koreans, New Zealanders, Canadians, Argentineans and Germans have won them beyond the traditional powers; and Frenchmen, Japanese, Spaniards, Swedes and Danes have come second. Americans now on average win fewer than every other one – a remarkable decline over 35 years, but unquestionably good for the game in terms of global interest and participation.

What now? It is likely that the majors will maintain their prestige for some time, not least because they complement each other so neatly and all have their own quirks. The Masters Tournament (referred to outside North America sometimes as the “US Masters”) is a purely invitational tournament always played at the same course, famed also for its traditions concerning its champions (not least the “Green Jacket”). The US Open is what it says it is, an open tournament of 120 years’ standing which allows qualification as well as invitation and also has significant Amateur involvement; it is played on courses which punish wayward play and reward precision, and winning scores are frequently high (not infrequently over par). The (“British”) Open is the oldest of them all, also allowing qualification as well as invitation with the most globally spread field of all; it is played on links courses, alternating between England and Scotland (and, now, Northern Ireland) with wildly variable weather accounting for wildly variable scores. The PGA Championship (sometimes known as the “US PGA”) is universally regarded as the least prestigious of the four, yet is for professionals only and thus can frequently ensure that it has the toughest field in terms of the current rankings; courses are usually set less tough than the US Open favouring distance and resulting, generally, in lower scores (often double figures under par over the four rounds is required to win).

The ultimate challenge is to win a major on both sides of the Atlantic – thus on inland courses in the United States where the ball can be played high and positioned through draw/fade and spin, and on links courses in the British Isles where the ball must be kept low to avoid the wind but thus often needs to be run up to the hole than hoisted towards it. Only the very best players achieve this (and some of the very best still don’t).

So those are the major championships – and why!

NI needs to drop “loser” mentality

Northern Ireland’s Commonwealth Games results were average; in fact, in sports not beginning with ‘b’, they were frankly poor. They compared markedly badly, even per capita, with Scotland’s and, particularly, Wales’. Other than in boxing, things haven’t improved much since the severe embarrassment of just two medals in Melbourne eight years ago, and we do need to assess why.

Boxing, of course, saved the day – Northern Ireland’s nine medals in boxing were comfortably more than any other country’s (although others won more golds). And boxing also probably provides the answer – summed up by team captain Paddy Barnes, who said effectively that the boxers simply felt they were better than anyone else (in marked contrast to both the past in boxing and the present in any other sport played at the Games).

I wouldn’t be foolish enough to argue with Paddy Barnes about anything (!), but I also happen to believe he’s right. There remains a mentality that we are innately inferior; that any medal, even at Commonwealth level, is to be regarded as a surprise; and that somehow we are fundamentally a bunch of losers. Thank heavens Paddy Barnes doesn’t think that way!

We can easily name three other Northern Irishmen who don’t think that way – Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, through whom Northern Ireland has mustered more major champions in the past four and a bit years than any other European country has managed in the past forty and a bit. In golf, even more so than in amateur boxing, we are genuinely world class. So why should we not expect to be in other sports?

Indeed, why should we not expect to be in other things, generally? It’s time to follow Paddy Barnes, expect victory, and stop thinking everyone else is automatically better. In other words, it’s time we stopped being and accepting losers.

Forget football statistics

There has been a tendency in the last few years to introduce an American-style statistical analysis to football. It may make a few companies some money – but it is completely pointless.

To be clear, specific statistics used to help plan nutrition or fitness levels are useful – but rarely likely to appear on screen. However, the ones provided as an overall match breakdown, to wow the armchair viewer, are pointless.

The World Cup rather proved this, with statistically good teams eliminated in the first phase, and statistically hopeless teams cruising through to the later knock-out phases. The only statistic which matters, after all, is the scoreline in goals. Often a team which “completes more passes” does so because it is going nowhere and has run out of ideas; one which “has more shots” often does so because it is wildly firing from long range; one which “has more corners” often achieves this as a result of a succession of them, all easily defended. Sometimes the most effective midfielder is the one who patrols the centre circle rather than running 15 miles; the most effective striker is the one who maintains possession while his team catches its breath; and the most effective goalkeeper makes few saves because he clears the danger before the shot can even come.

It’s all nonsense, and does nothing for the reality of the game. No stat can substitute for the sheer disbelief so many felt when the host team surrendered so horribly against Germany – we were watching a collective breakdown which was mental and psychological as much as physical and skilful. For a short period, a collection of young Brazilian men simply melted in front of a global audience of nearly a billion. It was a quite startling event, the first time I have known immediately that I was watching a sporting collapse which would become prominently known even to people as yet unborn. Here’s the thing about that game – Brazil had more possession, more shots, more shots on target, more corners… in fact the Brazilians won the game on every single statistical indicator. But that doesn’t help when you lose 7-1…

McIlroy shows NI can be the best when it tries

His is a very distinctive, and confident, strut down the fairway. Few global sports fans would not recognise Rory McIlroy now, striding to another victory.

Rory McIlroy with the famous Claret Jug (Paul Ellis, Agence France)

Rory McIlroy with the famous Claret Jug (Paul Ellis, Agence France)

He will probably not dominate in the way Nicklaus or Woods once did, but that is only because golf is a more global sport now – the top ranks in yesterday’s Open included Americans yes, but also Italians, Irishmen, a Spaniard, a Frenchman and so on. Recent major-winning countries include Korea, New Zealand, Argentina and Germany. Above all of those, Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell can challenge, and Rory at his best can soar. It is remarkable – and he’s ours!

It bears repeating then – if we can do golf, why not other stuff? Why not aspire to a social model others may wish to copy, to business innovation others may wish to buy, to public services others may envy?

If a young man from Holywood can do it, so can the rest of us. A bit less negativity and a bit more confident strutting, and we’d be a better place!

Real German lesson: say yes to austerity!

It is an incredible thing – and indicative of how it has become entirely confused – that the “Left” repeatedly used the word “austerity” and does so with the supposedly automatic contention that it is a bad thing.

This is the same “Left” of course, which rightly argues against “excess”. It is indeed an outrage that City Execs get paid 180 times the average wage; that entertainers get such ludicrous recompense on the licence payer or the commercial viewer; or even in some cases that senior quangocrats get so much. Here’s the thing – the opposite of “excess” is, er, “austerity”.

Germany doesn’t get everything right by any means, but it is hard to dispute its recent sporting and economic success. Such success is not down to chance. One of the prime reasons for it is that Germany is a vastly more austere country and society than the UK, France or Spain.

Even in football this shows. The BBC and ITV both had a main presenter, a stadium presenter, a main commentator, a co-commentator, three studio pundits and usually also a stadium pundit – eight, in total. German TV tends to make do with one presenter, one pundit and one commentator – three!

Another obvious area is supermarkets. The big Tesco or Carrefour superstores of the UK and France are replaced in Germany by Lidl, Aldi and others very similar – based on the recognition that it is pointless to pay, in effect, to pay for the privilege of looking at products you’re not going to buy in the name of “choice”. It is the austere German version which is now coming to the fore in the UK and France, not he other way around.

The same applies to housing. While the social housing argument centres around the age at which children should not share a room in the UK, even the children of German professionals often share into their teens; thirtysomething Germans may still live in single-room flats; ownership in the exception in Germany, not the norm.

This austerity works, therefore. Underlying the German social model is the notion of what suffices, not what shows off. As a result, there’s rather more to go around – because, as a direct result of the promotion of austerity as a good thing, outrageous excess is frowned upon. Even successful businesses or indeed football clubs are absolutely expected to maintain community links and loyalty.

This is of course a consequence to a large degree of German history, particularly the lessons of the last War and its immediate aftermath, in which social and economic ruin was the prospect. Whatever about that, the simple fact remains in 2024 that all of these things are good and admirable – and austere. Austerity is a good thing. In this of all weeks, there is a German lesson we can all learn.


England won’t learn German lesson

It was the most astonishing series in international football I had ever seen. For a team of such serious World Cup heritage to concede four goals so easily, without offering any resistance and in such a mentally fragile state, was a truly unbelievable sight to behold. I am speaking, of course, of Germany – specifically Germany’s throwing away of a four-goal lead in the last half an hour in a World Cup qualifier at home to Sweden to draw 4-4 barely eighteen months ago.

Much is already being written about Germany’s World Cup triumph, and mostly correctly: it was a triumph of youth development; of involving clubs in the national team’s development; of top-quality coaching at every level; of promoting the game with a community sense and not just a business one. Yet another point is often missed – namely Germany’s remarkable ability to perform when it really counts.

This is a German team which recently lost at home to Australia; which got stuffed two years ago at home by the same Argentine team it beat in this year’s Final; which is decidedly average even in the occasional competitive qualifier. Yet it has appeared in every World Cup quarter-final since 1954 – a scarcely believable statistic, especially when added to a joint-record three European Championship wins in that period.

In fact, since 1954, Germany’s overall win-loss record is scarcely better than England’s. Yet Germany has now won the World Cup twice as often as England has even reached the semi-final; since 1966, Germany has reached the Final as often as England has reached the quarter-final.

There is a specific skill, even within tournaments, to managing performance – one the Germans have mastered. Take a quick glance at World Cup history and note how even Germany’s group games follow the same basic pattern – usually an opening win to get off the mark, followed by an average second game (sometimes even a defeat), and then the result required to get through; alternatively, if they happen to win the second game, they’ll often lose the third (to, say, Denmark or even in one case East Germany!) The team then begins to gather pace through to, and usually beyond, the quarter-final.

Even if the English got the youth development right, the coaching right and the club linkage right (and there is evidence they are getting somewhere with the first two of these at least), there is little evidence they understand how to be a Turniermannschaft – how to manage a competition and the level of preparation (mental and physical) required.

Thus, we should probably expect Germany’s fifth star before England’s second.

World Cup – the decline of Europe?

England has struggled for 60-80 years now to come to terms with the fact that just because football originates there does not mean its national team is any good at it. Yet this World Cup raises an intriguing question – could the same now apply to the whole of Europe?

Clearly, Europe remains not just where the game came from but also home to its richest and best leagues. However, is it producing its best players and national teams?

The performances of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez (when he’s not hungry), James Rodriguez, the Valencias (when they’re on the pitch), Joel Campbell, Rafael Marquez and others from Latin America would very much suggest otherwise. Of course, anyone can produce players – Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba have excelled at club level but never played a World Cup knock-out game after all. What about national teams?

From 1986, when the modern World Cup introduced knock-out from the last 16, until 2006, consistently nine or ten of those 16 were European. However, in 2010 this fell dramatically to just six. At this World Cup, from a European perspective, things have not recovered.

What is further interesting is the assumption that European teams are the mighty ones. Group C, for example, was supposed to be a battle between Italy and England for top spot with Uruguay the main threat because of its Liverpool connection. In fact Costa Rica won the group easily and both European teams went home. Portugal was supposed to cruise through with Germany; Spain with the Netherlands; Russia with Belgium and so on. Even when European teams did get through, it was often a close thing (none closer than Greece).

For all that, all is not lost for Europe. Even with six out of 16 last time, coincidentally all playing each other, three still emerged to contest the semi-final and two the final. This is also an “away” World Cup – the last one in Europe saw four European semi-finalists (there have never been fewer than three at a European-hosted World Cup). Europe still produces excellent players (Ronaldo, Müller, now Pogba etc) and teams.

However, it is clear that we can no longer assume European dominance. A re-assessment of how we look at the game globally is needed.

England needs to move faster to avoid further embarrassment

The fact that Roy Hodgson had more success with Switzerland than with England shows beyond any remotely reasonable doubt where the problem with English football lies – and it’s not with the manager.

The problem lies in a single German phrase. “Den Ball englisch kicken“, loosely translated, means “to kick the ball English”, but is used to refer to an aimless hoof upfield. That sums it all up.

For half a century now, the English have been both technically and tactically inferior from the very start. As I have written many times before, the problem is not that there are too many foreigners in the Premier League, but rather and specifically that English players are not good enough to play in it.

The new academy at St George’s will help, and the number of coaches being brought through is very impressive. However, I suspect still too many English players will grow up playing 11-a-side rather than small games (that’s when they’ve dragged themselves away from the X-box to play at all); and as a result they will grow up relying on the “big bloke up front”. That leads not only to technical deficiencies, but also tactical ones. Watch how England’s plan to draw level against Uruguay consisted of whacking it down the flanks and hoisting it into the box over and over again. There is a combination of a lack of trust in their technical ability to do something more creative and accurate than that; and there is no tactical notion about how to draw another team out of position and play around or through them.

I cannot help but think that even these deficiencies would not be magnified so brutally at the highest level if England had its players’ mental preparation right. I found it truly bizarre, for example, that preparation for the big game against Uruguay included talks from senior players about how awful it is to go out of a big tournament. Surely that’s mad?!

With a population of 53 million and the richest domestic league in the world, there can be no excuses. There should be less time spent on daft B-team leagues and more time spent on real youth development.


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