Category Archives: Sport

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.

The scourge of retrospective nonsense

“Exit polls are usually [quite reliable], but of course in 1992 they were wrong – the exit polls said a Labour victory, it was actually a Conservative victory” – so said elections expert Anthony Foley at the start of the BBC’s 2005 General Election coverage. The problem is he was utterly wrong. The exit polls in 1992 actually suggested a hung parliament, with the Conservatives as the largest party – they were out (as the Conservatives actually had an overall majority), but nothing like as far out as retrospective “expert analysis” often claims. Indeed, no polls at all in 1992 pointed definitely to a Labour overall majority.

ESPN, in its coverage on English top-flight football’s “last day dramas”, started in 1968 with Manchester United needing to beat Sunderland to secure the title, but crumbling to a narrow defeat and thus handing it to City. This certainly counts as drama – but, upon checking, it’s not actually true. Even if United had won, City would still have taken the title on goal average.

There is, of course, a natural tendency to dramatise and exaggerate. However it does, when taken to this extent, give us often a significantly erroneous view of the past, and of the motivations of people acting in that past. In this age of instant information – both given and taken – it pays to be a little more careful.

The lost art of commentating

The World Cup has thus far been sensational – only one scoreless half (and even it contained two disallowed goals); eleven games without a draw; controversy and incident; huge support from neighbouring countries; and some epic shocks. The refereeing has at times been short of the standard we may want, but even it has generally been very good. Innovations such as temporary paint for free kicks and goal-line technology have worked well.

Watching in the UK, only one thing has been markedly poor – the commentary!

Commentators are well paid to do a fantastic job – travel to Brazil to watch football, in this case! It shouldn’t be too much to ask for them to do it well.

Minor errors are not the end of the world, although they still shouldn’t happen – France beat South Africa 3-0 in 1998, not 1-0; Maxi Rodriguez scored a sensational winner for Argentina versus Mexico in the second round in 2006, not the quarter-final; those are two I spotted which spring to mind, and as I’m not a paid World Cup researcher I can only assume they are two of many.

The real problem, for me, is the constant quest for drama when really there is none! This was most obvious in the BBC’s attempt – on both TV and radio – to make an issue out of the perfectly proper use of goal-line technology for France’s second goal against Honduras. A shot which hit the post (“no goal”) was then just bundled over his own line by the Honduras keeper (“goal”). There was nothing complicated about that. According to the BBC, this was “controversial” and a “talking point”. It was nothing of the sort.

The co-commentators are equally guilty of course. Much was made of Phil Neville’s monotone analysis of England-Italy, which did sound dire, but at least he was analysing – i.e. adding value to the viewer by explaining runs, noting what players would be feeling, and showing where things could be changed. Almost none of the others manages this! Mark Lawrenson spends most of his time trying (and failing) to be funny while demonstrating his own ignorance of the game – for example, he thinks FIFA “make the rules” of the game, when actually the IFAB determines the laws (implicit in Lawrenson’s mockery was the notion of “Johnny Foreigner” doing daft things – the IFAB is actually half-British). Andy Townsend has a Masters in “Stating the bleedin’ obvious”. The best co-commentary on ITV, in fact, was for the Ivory Coast-Japan match – when there wasn’t one. Are they necessary? Other countries get by without them!

I do wonder about the half-time “pundits” too. Some are very good – Thierry Henry gives a fair assessment of how players feel and what his experience (as a past World Champion) is; Clarence Seedorf is very good at contradicting the nonsense prevailing; Neil Lennon has in fact been a revelation with his tactical knowledge and valuable assessments of how you try to counter world-class players as a coach. Yet, again, some are dire, adding no value or interest whatsoever. And again, are three really necessary? German TV makes do generally with one!

The biggest problem, it appears to me, is that both BBC and ITV have taken out huge teams of commentators, co-commentators and pundits, all of whose job is seemingly to confirm the first opinion given. If a decision is initially deemed “controversial”, they are all bound to agree it was controversial; if a team is initially said to have “deserved a draw”, they are all bound to agree it deserved a draw; if the commentator initially says jump…

Commentating therefore appears, in the UK at least, to be a lost art. After all, more than anything, the best commentators know when to shut up…

 

World Cup: here we go!

I don’t intend to dedicate the entire blog to my favourite sports event of all, but I’ll try to drop in with some Monday notes as time permits!

I have already drafted a history of the tournament, updated with the 2010 tournament, and I have a downloadable pdf of all results in World Cup history and a schedule for 2014.

I won’t bother with a full preview this time – there are plenty of those about! But a few pointers to look for…

There is now a “Big Five” of countries who have won the World Cup away from home, and they are likely to provide the winner again (not least since one of them is actually at home) – namely Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina and Spain.

There is always a surprise semi-finallist. Such is the praise heaped on an exciting Belgium team, it almost wouldn’t be a surprise! The likelihood is that the surprise will come from the bottom end of the draw – personally, I’m watching for Bosnia-Hercegovina.

If you’re betting, go for teams in a tough group (the odds include group difficulty), like the Netherlands or Italy (33-1 and 25-1).

Fresh teams do best – this, surprisingly, will favour England (who generally get knocked out in the quarter-final, by the way).

Germany will reach the quarter-final the last time they failed (having been allowed to participate) was 1938!

It’s not looking good for Brazilthe only time Brazil has won the World Cup without playing England was in 1994 when England didn’t qualify. With England in the field, Brazil has always had to play them in order to win. They are unlikely to meet this time…

Penalties will be important - there were relatively few shoot-outs in South Africa, but they will probably return to prominence this time, not least given the heat. As I mentioned previously, it is also worth noting for information that shoot-outs do not form an official part of the game; and that the toss of the coin at the start of the shoot-out determines only which team goes first - this is important, the last seven World Cup shoot-outs have been won by that team…

Teams level on points are separated on goal difference and then goals scored - this is a quick note, but it is an important change from the last European Championships, where teams level on points were separated by head-to-head record (which in fact put Greece in the quarter-final at the expense of Russia).

Penalty shoot outs are not part of the match itself

As the World Cup looms, I thought it worth an initial small point on a technicality – but a statistically important one.

In some places, such as the British Isles, matches which go to penalties are marked as drawn, with the shoot-out score usually placed in brackets: the 2006 Final was thus Italy 1-1 France (Italy won 5-3 on penalties).

In others, such as German-speaking Europe, the penalties taken in the shoot out are included in the match score, thus Italien-Frankreich 6:4 n.E.

To be clear, the Germans have this wrong (and you’d think they would know better!)

According to the laws of the game, penalty shoot outs do not form part of the actual match. They are used simply to determine which team progresses (or wins the competition, in the case of the Final).

This means that, again according to the laws of the game, a match which is drawn at the end of game play (i.e. after 120 minutes in the case of the World Cup and most other big competitions) is deemed drawn. This affects overall win/loss records, as well as unbeaten and winning streaks.

It does lead to one somewhat bizarre quirk. Germany’s (previously West Germany’s) World Cup record is vastly better than England’s. Germany knocked England out in 1970, 1982, 1990 and 2010 (versus just one reverse in 1966); Germany has reached an incredible twelve semis, versus just two for England; and Germany has never failed to reach at least the last eight since it was re-admitted post-War, a period during which England has failed to qualify at all twice and frequently exited beforehand otherwise (not least at the most recent tournament).

Here’s a funny thing though… Although Germany has won three World Cups, it has only actually gone through the competition unbeaten once (1990)although England has only won one World Cup, it has in fact gone through the competition unbeaten three times (1966, 1982, 2006) - in fact four (plus 1990) if you exclude third-placed playoffs (as I personally do – I don’t see any point in them).

In fact, Germany has lost more World Cup Finals games than any other team except Argentina and Mexico; England hasn’t really lost very many at all. The English are truly awful at penalties though…

Another quick note on this subject: it is almost inevitable, when a game goes to penalties, that a commentator will refer to the “toss for ends”, as if there is a toss-up between the team captains to determine the end at which the shoot out takes place.

There isn’t! The toss of the coin determines only which team kicks first. The referee has sole discretion over the end at which the penalties are taken – supposedly because he is supposed to pick the end at which the penalty spot itself is in best repair (although there was a bit of an epic fail on that one in a Euro 2004 quarter-final, during whose shoot out David Beckham memorably spooned his effort about four times the height of the goal from an incredibly dodgy penalty mark!)

Arsenal takes over as FA Cup’s most successful side

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For all the talk about Arsenal‘s FA Cup victory ending a nine-year trophy drought, even dedicated football historians may have missed the fact that it means Arsenal is now the most successful club in the history of the competition.

Saturday’s win puts Arsenal ahead of Manchester United – yet it is astoundingly close. Arsenal has 11 Cup wins – Manchester United has 11. Arsenal has reached 18 Finals – Manchester United has 18. Arsenal has reached 27 semis – Manchester United has, you guessed it, 27! Arsenal has reached 40 quarter-finals – Manchester United, remarkably, has 39. Incredibly, in fact, prior to Saturday, Arsenal and Manchester United had each won exactly 227 FA Cup matches (Arsenal has won more ties overall, because of its better record in shoot-outs).

This list of all-time performance (available via my dropbox account) shows how remarkably close it is. It also shows that really Everton should have the best record – having reached the last 16 and last eight more often than any other club; yet it all tends to go wrong for Everton somewhere between there and the march up the traditional 39 steps on Final day.

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