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Ali now trending…..even transcending

6 Jun

A weekend to consider sportsmen and push politicians to the corners of our minds. Mohammad Ali’s death brought with it the necessary hyperbole as the world’s media tried to capture the impact of the greatest boxer, probably the greatest sportsman of the twentieth century. He transcended boxing, his influence transcended sport, so we heard. The T word is often used to convey a degree of influence and excellence beyond that of the activity for which someone is paid. Transcendent Ali certainly was- and somewhat transcendental into the bargain. As a teenage growing up during the height of his fame and power, he was simply the greatest sporting show on earth.

Ali’s rejection of the ‘slave’ name by which his fame had first flickered, Cassius Clay, was the first of many publicly honourable and seismic shifts in his life which became world headlines. Embracing Islam; rejecting the draft and suffering nearly 4 years in the boxing wilderness; wit and wisdom to fight with words as well as fists; showmanship of an unparalleled order; extraordinary public exposure of his decline-by-Parkinson’s; and the Parkinson Show, of course. A few marital slips ‘twixt cup and lip but heroes need an Achilles heel,  I suppose.

Now he’s gone; another hero bites the dust. Are we running out of titans who raise the spirits and transcend? Well, I thought Djokovic got close to transcendent when he defeated grunty, grumbly Andy at Roland Garros on Sunday. The sheer elan of the Serbian makes him, along with Federer, a man of some substance. Both of them have sportsmanship writ large in the psyche. Novak was supreme in his graciousness in victory. All four slams in one year. There is something about the man v man, woman v woman gladiatorial thing. The confrontation is raised to a heroic level that team sport can’t quite manage. To be fair to shouty Andy, his magnanimity in defeat was heartwarming and noble. George Foreman talking about his old adversary, Ali, likewise. The Rumble in the Jungle lives on.

Now politicians don’t transcend much do they? This literary technique which I have just employed is bathos – a somewhat ludicrous descent from the exalted to the ordinary. Geddit? The EU back (and front) stabbing debates have been evasive, shabby, vindictive, scaremongering, fictional (mostly), unworthy, divisive, uninformative and unprincipled. This last word – unprincipled – may be the most significant. The rhetoric has rarely risen above the gutter when most of us want to aim for the stars – or something like that. Cameron and Corbyn have been abjectly disappointing. So too, the little minx north of the border. Sturge the scourge is backing both horses, methinks. Principles be hanged.

As for pouty Gove and Boris the Spider – they have reduced the whole thing to an opportunistic roadshow of high-sounding nothings. No wonder the media people were pleased to stop the front pages for Ali this weekend. The footage from the last 60years told a mesmeric tale. His grandstanding was part-circus, part high-principles. As a boxer he was the consummate and brave ringmaster with a smile on his face and a lion in his heart. Boris and the others fall woefully short. Our politicians need to find some honest values from somewhere, stick to them, work hard and behave honourably. Most of them will never find themselves in the position of defying the US government, fighting for the right to eat in a restaurant in their home town or face the biggest, most brutal punchers on the planet. Sadly they are more bovvered by trending, than transcending.


Gordon is no moron..

1 Jul

Gordon Strachan bided his time last Thursday. We were watching South Korea play Belgium. Gordy’s co-pundits were lamenting the poor refereeing which allowed a range of physical assaults to go unpunished while the merest hint of a foot up or the sight of a stud incurred  yellow and red cards held aloft in a ritual of sanctimonious officialdom. When a terrified Korean defender with the same name as all his team mates, rugby tackled a Belgian with a Dutch moniker, the pundit-baying intensified. “It was so outrageous he (the ref) couldn’t make a decision,” opined Lee Dixon. “A clear penalty!” The outrage continued.

At half time the level of consternation reached new heights. The chatter had broadened: Suarez biting; ubiquitous shirt pulling; elbows in faces; Quatar bribing any FIFA official they could lay their hands on; diving…or simulation as the boys in black now love to call it. And so it went on until Gordon cut through the crap.

“You people are talking as if there are rights and wrongs here. Surely it’s obvious that, at this level of soccer, there are no morals.” Wow. He’d said it. And he repeated it. Hallelujah, a sensible, intelligent observation for once amid the clichéd claptrap and time-filling platitudes which I spend hours yawning at. More fool me, you might say. I say that I’m ever hopeful that a Gordon or an Alan or a Clarence or a Robbie will say something truly interesting, thought-provoking. And here it was.

He said more. “It’s the art of what you can get away with. Let’s face it Suarez was a bit (or a bite) unlucky. Or perhaps his value has gone up even more?” This was great stuff. I was on the edge of my seat. Condescending smiles from Chilesey and Lee Dixon- Gordon was being playful, provocative. Not a bit of it. Think about it boys and girls. And I sat at home and thought about it.

Luis Suarez was greeted by thousands of fans and the President of Uruguay on his return to Montevideo. Disgraced? Not a bit of it. Ever more the hero. The greatest ‘foul’of all time, the brilliant head-butt by the genius Zidane, has raised him to cult status. He did what a man had to do. The gamesmanship of players at the highest footballing levels will always exceed the ability of referees, FIFA, UEFA and the FA to keep up. But we don’t want to ‘keep up’ do we? I like waking up to the latest scandal that has hit the soccer world. Today it is the match-fixing by 7 Cameroonians. Well you would wouldn’t you, if a few thousand quid would take you out of a slum and give you running water in a downtown semi in Yaoundé?

And don’t we love the shirt-pulling antics of the penalty area? How dull if the refs started awarding the correct sanction. A penalty each time? You’re kidding – so much fun and punditry outrage to tap into without making the right decision. Isn’t it better to watch overpaid yobbos verbally abuse referees, argue with every single decision – than see them meekly accept the judgement of a (supposedly) unbiased official?

As for technology, what a master-stroke by the Premier League and FIFA to introduce goal-line technology. The least important area of contention is the one-in-a-hundred matches where blind refs and their assistants can’t tell if a sizeable sphere has crossed the rubicon. It’s all Frank Lampard’s fault. If Hawkeye had assisted the hapless officials our glorious boys might not have been put through the German sausage machine four years ago. I don’t think so. But how brilliant of the powers that be to ignore all meaningful forms of technology help (see Rugby, Tennis, Cricket and any other high profile sport with an interest in truth and fairness) and plump for the least helpful, leaving all contentious decisions I the hands of the least able, i.e. on-field officials. It’s a master-stroke of Blatterdom. Sepp’s a canny operator in the world game – his game. It’s Roller-ball and he’s with Gordon. Who dares – or cheats- wins.

Lest my endorsement of Gordon’s wise observations, last Thursday, is taken as too frivolous let’s tackle that lurking moral sticking point. Example. How the top players behave has a trickle down moral effect. Think about this carefully. Think schooldays, schoolteachers, sports coaches, what mums and dads say at mini rugby or on the local tennis courts. Think about the behaviour that is encouraged at grass roots. There may be exceptions but for the most part we’re talking wholesome, happy, respectful  behaviour. Appropriate disapproval of bad language, fouling, gamesmanship. The local park and school match really is, these days, a million miles from the virtual reality of the Suarez bite. The latter is a bubble-wrapped world of media frenzy and gossip-generating scandal. How dull if Suarez didn’t have a Hannibal Lecter fixation. How boring if you couldn’t debag a centre forward in the penalty area and get away with it.

Gordon made me think about the truth of team games. For all the character-building good that school and amateur-level  club matches manage there is an inevitability that, the higher the stakes the greater the cheating. Morality goes out of the window – and we all conspire, in some way, to ensuring that things won’t change too much while the chequebook and Sepp Blatter are Kings of the Castle.

Games, Winning and Education (Or was Stuart Broad right not to ‘walk’?)

16 Jul

Nearly 40 years ago Charles Bailey, Cambridge philosopher, argued that games or sports which pitted one side against another should have no place in the school curriculum. Such activities inevitably provoked questionable behaviour in the pursuit of victory – i.e. cheating, argument, gamesmanship. It seemed, at the time, an armchair examination of the morality of games, without much context – an argument in a vacuum which, bolstered by other sedentary luminaries, was allowed to make headway in primary education, in particular. I remember watching my own children playing non-competitive bean-bag throwing during early years education. I was a daddy in a parallel universe writhing to get back to reality.

The recent breathtaking exploits of the Lions, Andy Murray, Chris Froome and the startling opening of the Ashes series have fanned the flames of ethical controversy which sport is likely to throw up so regularly. It is because all sport is bound by rules and nearly all governing bodies, responsible for codifying the rules include a rule (or law) which enshrines ‘the spirit’ of the game or activity. Players and spectators enjoy wrestling with the boundaries set, whether practical or ethical. We extrapolate to real life where, so often, the example of society’s leaders falls short of the behaviour of sportsmen and sportswomen.

MPs’ expenses; the fixing of the Libor rate; bankers’ bonuses (win or lose); BBC executive payouts; Jimmy Carr and Starbucks and the Duchy of Cornwall avoiding tax…do I need to go on about the cheating (gamesmanship) which abounds in society and is excused, often, by ‘We didn’t break any rules, did we?’  And yet we expect sportsmen to behave in more admirable ways than our politicians and captains of industry. Well, actually, they do.

This brings me on to Stuart Broad. He famously stood his ground last week when the young Aussie bowler, Ashton Agar had him caught at slip. He pretty much middled it to skipper Clarke but umpire Aleem Dar was the only guy at Trent Bridge or in the global TV audience who didn’t see or hear the resounding nick. The Aussies had been profligate with their appeals to the third umpire and his technology and had lost their right to appeal further. Broad knew the rules. He stayed where he was. Not out. There followed the usual plum-accented, MCC stripey-tie harrumphing about the Spirit of Cricket, led, predictably by the otherwise charming Aggers (aka Jonathan Agnew of TMS, cake-eating, armchair-musing, pigeon-fancying, gentlemen’s clubby radio 4 set). He met his match in the plain-speaking, arrogant Yorkshire lad – one Geoffrey Boycott. He put the thing in context. 21st century technology and professional umpires means that decision-making has been delegated away from the players. The rules concerning appeals to technology are clear. The day before Broadgate the supposedly infallible third umpire made two critical errors which cost England far more than the Broad’s retention at the crease. Trott was not out lbw – he hit the ball and Agar, the bravura debutant for Oz was indeed out stumped. He was on 6 and went on to score 98. Aggers, mournfully harked back to an era of gentlemen and players and ‘doing the right thing’. Is it only batsmen who should ‘play the game’? As a fast bowler didn’t Aggers admit to sledging batsmen to unsettle them and appealing for dubious catches or lbws. Has he ever called a batsman back after a dodgy decision in his favour? You can’t have it both ways Aggers – and Sir Geoffrey, in context, put you right. Notice how the Aussies said very little at the end of a hard-fought day, about the mid-afternoon controversy. They knew the score. They play hard but fair – and fair, in this instance meant within the new set of rules provided by the introduction of technology.

Dear old Andy M complained about the gamesmanship of his Polish semi-final adversary at Wimbledon who worked on the umpire to close the centre-court roof. Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, most recently, have thrown the athletics world into turmoil with positive drug tests. Let’s hope the expected win for Chris Froome isn’t blighted by some further scandal. After the serial deceit of Lance Armstrong cycling can’t take much more. Sport enables moral discussion. We cannot expect sportsman and sportswomen to behave better than others. Money + competition = corruption. Examples of both good and poor behaviour in sport abound. Soccer is full of it – Maradonna’s Hand of God goal against England is a celebrated piece of cheating but at least in sport the truth tends to be revealed instantly, discussed, often condemned, usually dealt with. Other malefactions in wider society grow unseen, like cancer, undermining the fabric of our major institutions. Sub-prime debt., RBS, payment protection insurance, the Hillsborough debacle, sexual abuse perpetrated by ministers of the church. Jimmy Savile.

So Charles Bailey thinks non-competitive bean-bag throwing is the way forward, or rock-climbing or yoga. Anything you can’t cheat at. From where I sit competitive sportsmen and sportswomen do a vey good job of playing within the rules and with a smile on their faces and a deal of respect for eachother. When they’re caught out they are exposed, usually quickly. School and youth sport can and should be used as a vehicle for inculcating moral behaviours, good manners, respect for the opposition and so on. A sporting education with morality at its heart produces sporting adults who recognise injustice and fair play equally. We become more indignant with lapses from a standard in sport than in other walks of life.

One of my fondest memories from school was cheating on a cross-country run round Richmond Park. Phil Newton and I hid on the first circuit round the Isabella Plantation. He had a fag, I had a coke and we rejoined the group, mid-pack, next time round. We didn’t get caught. Were we corrupt? Nah, just lazy. Happy days.

My Pal Joey. Yes – Joey Barton!

15 May

Joey Barton’s death-wish is plainly attractive. As I was glued in days of yore to the vengeful antics of Charles Bronson, guided by the directorial hand of the compulsive- but- odious Michael Winner – so Joey’s saga is played out through twitterbites no less blackly comic and gruesome. The latest chapter in his doom-tale involves those soccer saints Shearer and Lineker plus a cast of several at the Etihad on Sunday.

Before we examine all that let’s check on a few home truths. Barton intimidates a pussycat to precisely the same degree that Keane, Viera, Pearce, Vidic, Adams, Harris (Chopper variety), Smith, Mackay, Hunter, Stiles, Vinnie…et al manage to worry man-eating tigers. He’s serially naughty but he’s not even the playground bully – he’s the loudmouthed sideshow, spitting his vitriol and chucking his toys. What he clearly doesn’t lack is balls and brain. He may not be long for this Premiership but his tweets tell things (give or take the odd inconsistency) how they are – if  you can get to the end of his startling invective.

Throughout the season on Match of the Day we have witnessed Shearer, Lawrenson and Hansen fighting shy of telling how it is when their mates (principally dour, scratchy Kenny) have messed up. Squeaky Lineker cajoles ineffectively and the show is far too cosy for comfort. Enter the dragon Barton. He messes up seriously not once, not twice but thrice (at least) on Sunday – and Shearer has a little go at him. Well, we are so used to the Geordie puppet spouting bland nothings that a sideswipe at Pal Joey was to be welcomed. Back comes the Bartontweet savaging the bald icon; then another salvo against squeaky Gary. Joey even suggested there were some dark skeletons to be discovered in the Lineker vaults. What fun! Gary and Al  shut up, pronto. Joey is too honest and vituperative to lose. And he’s funny. Game over.

But back to the Etihad. Let’s examine what happened. Check the replay. Tevez – that shameful disgrace to a mostly honest profession – was climbing all over Pal Joey who lifted his elbow at him. Tevez dropped like a stone only to do a Lazarus the minute he spotted the ref. checking with his assistant. Then Joey’s red mist took over. Fair play – he even chose quite nice guys like Aguero and Company to molest. Balotelli felt left out of the fun so raced from his £170,000 per week seat on the bench to add his tuppence.

I am left wanting Pal Joey to keep tweeting and be given one more chance. I want Sparky to come over all headmagisterial:’Barton, you’ve had so many chances. Goodness knows we have tried. You’ve been in umpteen detentions and suspended from school time and again. However the local authority insist that we cannot permanently exclude – yet…You will be on lesson by lesson report and must come to my study at the start and the end of each day to sign in and out. Now get out of my sight and I’ll see you on Monday.’

Pal Joey is much more of a distraction than a main player – let’s not forget that. Let’s also not forget that there is a roguish, entertaining honesty about him – much of the time. He career seems on the wane now anyway. The one whose story presents a much deeper thorn in the flesh of our game is Tevez. Barton is a pussycat – just imagine him squaring up to Vinnie Jones.


Barry Davies got it right…

23 Mar

Barry Davies got it right….

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