Category Archives: Sport

FIFA intent on destroying World Cup

I would frankly have more faith in Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Arlene Foster running FIFA than the corrupt buffoons who actually do. Never in human history have so many idiots congregated to try to ruin a perfectly good thing.

The latest pile of garbage is Mr Infantino’s ludicrous suggestion for a 48-team World Cup, yet another attempt to fix something which isn’t remotely broken. Of course, we could just about have 12 groups of four with an intermediate playoff round before the last sixteen, but that would be daft. Of course, Mr Infantino’s plan is even dafter; groups of three with, unbelievably, the top two progressing. He then presents as advantageous the ridiculous idea of having a knockout tournament from 32 teams in.

Cue 48 teams packing the defence to scramble through the first round, then packing the defence again through five potential penalty shoot-outs. Frankly it would be as effective to just draw the winner out of a hat – and probably a good deal more exciting.

FIFA had long since perfected the art of crazed claptrap, of course. It is the sort of organisation which will thrive in this loco “post-truth” world. But frankly, if it tries anything of this sort, the large associations had better withdraw and set up their own tournament. That is, if they want anyone to watch it.

Irish FA right to apologise for lap of honour snub

Paralympian Jason Smyth’s complaint that he had not been invited on the Irish FA’s “Lap of Honour” should not have been the main headline (ahem), but it was legitimate and it was important.

Implicit in the “snub” was the underlying instinct that the only type of “Northern Irish” is “British”. In fact, there are two types of “Northern Ireland” – the other is “Irish”. We agreed to this in 1998 (and it was always implicit).

By the way, there are also too types of “Irish” – “Northern Irish” and “Republic of Irish”. Someone who wishes to be identified as “Irish” may be deemed so by connection either to “Northern Ireland” or the “Republic of Ireland” – neither is less legitimate than the other.

This is important; and it is topical for two main reasons.

Firstly, the Irish FA’s whole case against the FA of Ireland’s ability to select players for Northern Ireland was based on the point that to be “Irish” was not necessarily to be “connected to the Republic of Ireland”. It is quite possible to be “Irish” by virtue solely of a connection to Northern Ireland. It is possible to be Irish and not connected to the Republic of Ireland in exactly the same way that it is possible to be British and not connected to England. I agreed with the Irish FA’s case.

Despite the fact the case lost, the fact is it shouldn’t have. And the logic of it needs to be pursued consistently. It is a reason that the British anthem is not appropriate (as the team represents both British and Irish); and it is a reason that Northern Irish athletes who happen to have represented Ireland rather than Team GB should be invited to events on exactly the same basis as those who chose Team GB.

The Irish FA has, it should not be forgotten, worked wonders in this regard since 1998. It has recognised the mistake, so there is no reason to dwell on this particular incident. But it should not happen again.

Is the sporting media responsible for social breakdown?

I saw an article today entitled “Who could Arsenal get in the Champions’ League draw?”

There are TV sports channels which advertise “All the Build-up to the Champions’ League draw”.

What?

I mean seriously, what?!

How about we just wait to see who Arsenal do get in the draw, and then talk about it? What is the precise point of such irrelevant conjecture?

And how can there be “build-up” to  a draw? “Build-up” to a match is bad enough, full of irrelevant nonsense from “pundits” who have the tactical nous of a tortoise.

And we haven’t even reached “Transfer Deadline Day”, until we find out which Paraguayan defender no one had ever heard of (even people in Paraguay) is going to turn Everton into world beaters (with absolutely no concept that football is a team game and, in any case, we have no idea of the personal circumstances of this random player who may or may not settle in Merseyside, may or may not speak English, and may or may not be any good).

Yet all of this stuff seems to attract enough commercial interest to make it worth producing. In other words, some people must be watching it. No harm, but is that not quite alarming? Frankly, should people not have something more socially useful to do with their day than watch the “build up” to someone drawing bits of paper out of a plastic ball?

There must be something better they could be doing. They could even write a blog…

GB not yet an “Olympic Superpower”

There is no doubt Team GB’s performance at this month’s Olympic Games was outstanding. To edge ahead of the London medals total was a superb achievement, and all those who made it happen should be rightly reflecting in the afterglow.

However, it should not be overstated. The most obvious recent comparison, Australia around 2000, gives food for thought.

When I was growing up, Team GB (although it was not then so branded) typically scored five gold medals in the twenties total medals in a typical Olympic Games (five and 24 in Seoul 1988 was actually above par at the time). That was also the total typically scored by countries such as France and Italy (of equivalent population and wealth), and somewhat behind West Germany (likewise). It was also typically marginally ahead of Australia, a country with considerably fewer people but considerably greater sporting interest.

Suddenly, having been awarded the 2000 Games, Australia burst out of the blocks – at the previous games, in Atlanta in 1996, it scored nine golds and 41 medals, a marked improvement on past performance. When the time came to host the games, this rose to 16 golds and 58, and Australia was talked of as an “Olympic superpower”. Yet, astonishingly, at the subsequent games in Athens in 2004, Australia did more or less as well – in fact improving to a whopping 17 golds, while declining only slightly to 51 overall medals, still markedly better than any previous remotely comparable performance away from home.

At the time, it was thought that hosting the games had seen Australia rise not just temporarily to Olympic superpower status as hosts, but in fact permanently. It was thought the Sydney afterglow would last forever. In Beijing in 2008 there was a slight slip to 46 medals (agonisingly one behind the “Poms”), but this was still better than any pre-2000 performance. Superpower status seemed confirmed.

Yet, by 2016, Australia had slumped to just 29 medals. This is still historically respectable and is not a bad total for a country with less than half the population of England alone. However, it is just half the Sydney total and nothing like the heights reached even away from home in 1996-2008.

Team GB did something similar. In 2000 and 2004 the team improved slightly, but still only to an average ten golds and 29 medals (in line with the likes of France and Italy, as in the past). However, having been awarded the games, the team then improved dramatically even at the previous games, with an at-the-time-astonishing 19 golds and 47 medals in Beijing in 2008 for fourth place in the medals table. As hosts, performance then took another leap up to 29 golds and 65 medals and third place, and this was then retained (as was more or less the case with Australia in 2004) to secure 27 golds and 67 medals at the subsequent Olympics in 2016, good enough for second.

If Team GB were to track Australia – and that is a reasonable proposition – performance in Tokyo in 2020 would remain marginally better than it was in Beijing in 2008, but inferior either to London 2012 or Rio 2016. This would still, by historical comparison, be a good result and would probably be reported as such. However, the subsequent 2024 Olympics would be expected to see a sudden dip, still to slightly better than the historical average but markedly worse than anything since 2004, before settling back at a more typical performance from then on (which, given the wider range of sports now at the games, would probably mean around 10 golds and 30-35 medals, similar to Italy and marginally better than Australia as in the past, from 2028).

In other words, it is by no means yet established that Team GB is a true “Olympic Superpower” as some have reported. Vastly improved coaching and facilities must have had an effect, of course, but the test is whether they really put the British up with the Russians and Chinese a decade from now. There is much still to do if that is to be achieved!

Ireland needs to think again re Olympics

“Team GB” had a staggering Rio Summer Olympics. For many, including me, it was a marked comparative improvement on the last one, given that it came away from home and was so far in excess of what past comparable hosts (cf. Australia 2004 after 2000) have managed.

It was, however, “Team GB”. Northern Ireland contributed not a single medal to the haul.

Most Northern Irish competitors were, of course, competing for “Team Ireland”. However even that entire team, with a population higher than New Zealand and comparable to Denmark, mustered just two silvers. Let us even leave aside the disgrace around its Chief, who ended up arrested.

To be clear, to reach the semi-final of the 1500m at the Olympics or reaching the latter stages of the archery is a fantastic achievement; and if you do it, it should be cause for much local and family pride. One boxer was, of course, outright robbed in the quarter-final. Individuals have no cause for disappointment – many performed admirably given the resources and facilities available.

There, perhaps, is the issue, however. “Team Ireland” (and “Team Northern Ireland” in Commonwealth Games) has consistently now won only a handful of medals, and even those have usually been confined to one or two disciplines. Sure, therefore, when it comes to Olympic sport the island of Ireland needs to think again – just as the UK did in 1996 having won just one gold medal (imagine!!)

Ireland, even as an island, cannot of course hope to match Great Britain in terms of the availability of resources and facilities. It can, however, copy much of what has proven so successful there, or in other comparably sized countries such as Denmark and New Zealand. It can identify talent more efficiently; it can invest in world-class facilities (which have potential community as well as “elite” benefit); most of all, perhaps, it can focus on funding coaching.

“Team Ireland” at the Olympics (as Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games) has some reason for pride, but fundamentally it is second rate. If it wishes to close the gap with the real first-class performers, it will need to reform fundamentally how it operates. It will also need to aim considerably higher.

[Just one slight niggle – we can’t have it both ways re GB’s result. Either positions are determined on total medals (in which case GB’s performance in 2016 was better than 2012 but it came third, not second, in the table) or on golds (in which case GB came second in 2016 but its result was narrowly worse than 2012, when it won 29 golds). According to the IOC, it is the latter.]

#Olympics – who is coming second?

With the United States (39 gold, 106 medals) well out in front, and Germany (16, 39) and Russia (13, 48) well back, the question over the next 24 hours or so becomes which country will come second – Great Britain & NI (26, 63) or China (23, 67)?

The likelihood is that it will be GB on golds and China on overall medals – but perfection on one side and disaster on the other could yet change that. It will almost all be decided by 3am (UK time).

Gracenote Sports tried to project it but already a number of predictions have not gone to plan.

The certain medalists for either team are:

2300 (Sat) CN gold or silver – women’s team (volleyball)

1900 (Sun) GB gold or silver – Joe Joyce (boxing)

Thus, the worst GB can finish is with 64 medals, and China 68.

The likely medalists in addition are (all on Sat eve/Sun morning UK time):

2200 CN – Chen Aisen (diving)

2200 CN – Qiu Bo (diving)

0200 GB – Mo Farah (athletics)

0215 GB – women’s relay team (athletics)

Of these, you would say the first three are almost guaranteed. Notably, however, China‘s cannot both be gold as they are in the same competition; but conversely GB‘s are less likely to be golds and silvers anyway.

Of course, there can always be surprises elsewhere – to move ahead on medals, GB will probably need one; to move ahead on golds, China will definitely need one!

Ultimately, we could see it all decided by taekwondo. On the men’s side, there is only one possible (not necessarily likely) medal for either in the last event as of the quarter-final stage:

2030 GB – Mahama Cho [quarter-final match]

Indeed, there could be a mouthwatering (and conceivably even decisive in terms of second place in the official medals table) final in the women’s last event:

0215 – Shuyin Zheng (China) v Bianca Walkden (GB)

The bet is both teams will have their fair share of wins and losses, leaving GB ahead on golds and China on medals. It will then be pointed out that the IOC officially places teams by golds…

How Northern Ireland reaches last 16

I was not a fan of a 24-team European Championship, because it makes qualification from the group phase both too complex and too fortuitous (as was the case with the 1986, 1990 and 1994 World Cups, played under the same format).

Nevertheless, I did work out that three points may well be enough to advance. I also reckoned they were likeliest to come against Ukraine, so I took it upon myself as a keen fan of football, languages and roads to, er, drive to the match and back…

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Good calls so far, but let us say the Northern Irish lose narrowly to world champions Germany… who else should we be supporting to sneak through to the last sixteen (thus proving we would have qualified for a sixteen-team tournament anyway)?

Basically, the GAWA army would need at least two third-placed teams to have a worse record than Northern Ireland (let’s assume Northern Ireland has three points and an even goal difference).

Group A looks hopeful. A draw between Romania and Albania would mean neither made it to three points. A narrow Albania win would also probably help, given its goal difference would remain inferior to Northern Ireland’s.

And a narrow Albania win it was – meaning Northern Ireland can afford to lose by up to three goals and still be ahead of the Albanians. One down, one to go!

Group B is less helpful. Wales and Slovakia both already have three points; Wales plays Russia and one or other of those teams, plus England, must end up with more than three. The only hope, really, is that Wales gets some sort of result (eliminating Russia) and that England thrashes Slovakia, weakening its goal difference.

Didn’t expect much from Group B, and got even less! Slovakia third with four points, meaning Northern Ireland need a draw to progress for sure. Interestingly, the likeliest opponent upon progressing would now be Wales!

If Romania doesn’t win and England does, it is possible Northern Ireland will already know that a certain margin of defeat will already suffice to progress.

So, the precise basis of this blog post has happened – thanks to Big Mike Shovel Hands Northern Ireland lost 1-0, and thankfully only 1-0!

Group D also carries some hope, with the Czechs and Turks playing each other. As with Romania-Albania, a draw would mean neither reached three points (so it is already the case, as it stands, that if both the Romania-Albania and Czech-Turkey games are drawn, Northern Ireland will progress). A win for Turkey would mean three points but, probably, an inferior goal difference to Northern Ireland (though the Turks will by this stage have the advantage of knowing the margin they need at least to have some chance of going through) – we now know Turkey would in fact have to win by four. A Czech win, however, would mean this group carried no more interest!

… and Turkey wins by two goals! Last 16 it is for bravest team and best fans in the tournament!

Group E was also hopeful. In this case, the bottom two teams are not playing each other. If neither Sweden nor the Republic of Ireland win, then neither reaches three points; if either does, it secures at least four points. A Swedish win would leave Belgium on three points, but possibly with a better goal difference (there were several reasons for Irish fans north of the border to curse Belgium’s big win yesterday).

We hoped it would not come down to Group F (although actually it concludes before Group E). Appearances were deceptive here, because there is a fair possibility that both Portugal and Austria will win thus taking three teams to beyond four points; even if this does not happen, the third-placed team will have at least three points, barring an unlikely Hungarian win over Portugal.

Who next? If Republic of Ireland and/or Sweden win and Portugal does not lose, it is Wales v Northern Ireland; otherwise, it is France v Northern Ireland.

Congratulations regardless to Michael O’Neill and his team.

Leicester won the League; Arsenal didn’t lose it

I have read some commentary expressing disappointment with Arsenal’s season despite the finishing position (not entirely unreasonable), and often suggesting Arsenal “should have won the League this [particular] season” (unreasonable – and disrespectful to Leicester).

This century, no team has won the League on fewer than 80 points. Arsenal has mustered this only once in ten seasons at the Emirates (83 in 2008, coming third). Since 2008, Arsenal managed 79 in 2014 (coming fourth) but has never otherwise managed more than 75, occasionally even dipping below 70. Arsenal is, in other words, a club which typically scores in the low to mid-70s, when the champion team is always on at least 80 (and often rather more than that).

Although Leicester’s 81 points is a relatively low total for the table topper, it is worth noting that 42 of those (more than half) came in the second half of the season – following in from a first half which was already astonishing. After a gutting injury time loss with 10 men at Arsenal on match day 26, Leicester went on a solid twelve-game unbeaten run to wrap up the championship. Such was Leicester’s performance, Arsenal would have had to win all ten of its last ten games, including trips to White Hart Lane and the Etihad, to win the title (something which has only ever been done once in the history of English football), and even then only on goal difference.

So, firstly, a lot of plaudits must go to Leicester, a genuinely very good team. This is far from a fluke. For nearly 50 games now back to March 2015, Leicester has been comfortably the most consistent team in the Premier League. Yes, the big teams have struggled during this time, but Leicester’s achievement is down to its own strengths, not just others’ weaknesses.

Secondly, Arsenal’s failings are nothing to do with the fact “only Leicester” ended up ahead. Since the Invincibles, with very very few exceptions, Arsenal has been a 68-75 point team – enough to qualify for the top four and the big bucks that flow into Stan Kroenke’s bank account as a result, but nothing like enough to win the League regardless of who did.

So leave Leicester out of it. The question is how does Arsenal go from typically winning 20 games a season to typically winning 25? A defender like Huth, a midfielder like Drinkwater, a striker like Mahrez, a manager like Ranieri and a team spirit like Leicester’s, perhaps…?!

FA Cup needs Champions’ League spot to survive

There was a lot of discussion about FA Cup replays last week, but frankly it missed the point. The competition’s problem is not structural; it is more fundamental than that.

Yesterday saw the tie of the round: Premier League Champions and 2012 winners Chelsea played Premier League runners-up and 2011 winners Manchester City in a clash between the two most recent champions and two of the richest clubs in the world.

The game was a farce. City fielded a youthful team so second string that its shirt numbers added up to over 400. The youngsters were outplayed by a Chelsea first team out to retrieve its only hope of domestic honours this season. There was never the remotest chance of a replay, as the London side could even afford to miss a penalty and still win 5-1.

This has implications. For the competition, it renders it close to meaningless. For fans, it devalues matches played in the tournament. For sponsors and broadcasters, it surely makes them think again. Some teams are motivated; others are not; the trophy itself is stained. There was no “magic of the Cup” on display at Stamford Bridge yesterday.

This has nothing to do with replays.

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There is an obvious way around this. The FA Cup winners should qualify automatically for the group stages of the Champions’ League.

There is no reason this should not be allowed. The (English) FA selects its Champions’ League representatives and is free to do so in any means it wishes as long as it is on merit. Although League position is the most common means of deciding qualifying teams, it does not have to be – the Dutch FA has a playoff system, for example.

The specific reward needs to be not just a place in the Champions’ League playoff (as per fourth place currently), but directly into the group stages (as per top three). That way, even a team which was relatively confident of a top four challenge would have added reason to take the Cup seriously (currently fourth-placed City yesterday being an obvious example).

This would do no harm to the Premier League either – fourth place would still earn Champions’ League qualification of sorts if the Cup winner came from the top four, but it would no longer guarantee it, making the “medal places” the real objective as they should be. Most of all, however, it would restore the FA Cup to its rightful place as a prestigious competition more than worth winning.

With replays. Of course.

Unionists making NI less British, not more

I was on Nolan again last week at short notice to discuss the decision in the House of Commons in support of a specifically English anthem (implicitly) for English sports teams. This came in the same week as the first vote taken in the House under the new “English Votes for English Laws” measures. This followed on from an article in the Newsletter about how sport continues to divide in Northern Ireland and how Northern Ireland needs its own anthem like Scotland and Wales. (I note lots of charming and persuasive comments underneath…)

This was, in other words, a week when growing English self-consciousness was further demonstrated, and the push towards at least federalism was continued – driven by the English. This has long been predictable and people in Northern Ireland, with less than 3% of the population, are deluding themselves if they think they can (or should) stop it.

An inevitable consequence of this will be a continued surge in Northern Irishness. As Nationalists seek to make us more dependent on the British public purse, and thus more distinct from the Republic of Ireland, this will only continue. It is bizarre, however, that the people in Northern Ireland most dedicated to keeping Northern Ireland distinct from the rest of the UK are Unionist politicians.

Increasingly, it seems the only purpose of any Unionist politician is to stop anything happening. Reform same-sex marriage as in the rest of the UK? No thanks, we’ll define marriage differently from everywhere else. Align blood donation policy with the rest of the UK? Not us, let’s just openly discriminate. Sort out abortion regulations? No, let’s just pretend it’s not happening. Bring NI into line with other countries of the UK in having its own anthem for its own team? Ah no, bringing flag flying policy into line with British norms was already too much for us, er, British people… we will have the British anthem but stuff British social norms, eh?

It is already frankly bizarre that Scotland and Wales have their own anthems while Northern Ireland uniquely retains the same one as England. If England switches too? Northern Ireland will simply look ridiculous, clinging on to an anthem which it well knows represents only half its population.

I am British, and frankly I’m fed up with looking like a desperate hanger-on within the UK. It is time those who claim to be British took on the full responsibilities which come with that. Federalism (at least) is coming, and it is not just economically that we need to be prepared for it.