Quelle catastrophe!

From the moment Thierry Henry touched that ball with his hand to the moment I left France in May everyone I met, upon learning my nationality, apologised.  They were sorry that he had cheated but I got the sense that they were more disappointed about actually qualifying for the World Cup.  They were well aware of how poor the French team was and understandably did not want to go to a competition where they knew they would be shown up. Their hatred of Domenech actually seemed to outweigh their desire to go to South Africa as well.  The sooner they lost, the sooner they could get rid of him as coach.  As it turns out, their qualification did not stop them replacing Domenech even before the World Cup had started.

So, despite the wishes of a nation, France went to South Africa and so far have managed to create quite a spectacle.  Nobody expected France to win the competition, in fact most probably never expected them to make it beyond the first knock out round.  Even the fact that they have decided to act like five year old children has been received with a certain amount of resignation.  ‘Ah well, what else do you expect from the French?’ seems to be the most common reaction.  This has not been the first and will undoubtedly not be the last time that politics overshadow the French team’s performance.  What has happened at this World Cup can actually be traced right back to the World Cup in 1998.

The members of the team which won the World Cup in 1998 and then the European Championship in 2000 became heroes in France.  As they left the country to earn higher wages in the Premiership and elsewhere they were considered the greatest generation of French footballers to have ever played the game.  All of this may have been completely deserved and indeed accurate at the time but their fall from grace at the 2002 World Cup left them looking like old players past their prime.  By the end of 2004 eight of the eleven players who had taken to the field for the World Cup final in 1998 had retired.  The next generation of French talent was beginning to emerge.  But the final in 2006 saw an equal mix of players from the 1998 World Cup and the next generation.  It seemed the World Cup winners were unwilling to let go and were still clinging to their pre 2002 glory.  The European Championships in 2008 should have been the time when past heroes were forgotten and new ones made as emerging talent in the shape of Nasri and Benzema came to our attention.  However, these younger players did not seem to treat the veterans of the 1998 World Cup winning team with the same respect as the generation before them had.  The players who emerged after 2002 were willing to worship Zidane and Henry, the newer players who could outrun and outplay them were not so keen.   Their lack of respect for their elders and the conflict between the two generations has been blamed for France’s poor performance in 2008.  By leaving them at home for the 2010 World Cup, Domenech seemed to be giving a clear message.  Only players who were willing to work as a team would be welcome to go to South Africa, even if that meant bringing old players and leaving the best behind.

Which leads us to the main problem; a team decided because of politics and hugely influenced by the ‘revered’ players of World Cups past, will never be the strongest team.  France went into this World Cup handicapped by their team selection.  Their resulting failures can be blamed on nobody but themselves.  This I believe is the reason for the tantrums, the strikes and the resignations.  When external factors cannot be blamed frustration is taken out on those closest, in this case fellow teammates and the coach.  Domenech has allowed personal feelings influence his selections, he has thought about politics first and football second.  This means that when the politics get out of hand, in this case when Anelka was sent home for having a fight with him, the game is immediately affected.  If the French team had strong discipline and the coach was respected none of the events of the past week would have happened.  But the French team is still run by the aging heroes of the past and Domenech has done NOTHING to earn respect with his decision to leave two of the best French footballers behind.  The team itself has nothing to lose by walking out of training sessions because they have long since lost the respect of their country.  A new manager is being hailed by many as a new start for France and a chance to rebuild.  This will only be possible if the team can reunite and work together.  Erasing past memories seems to be the only way to do this, forgetting both the good and the bad.

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Are the referees going to ruin this World Cup?

While opinion on the vuvuzelas certainly seems to be divided, everyone watching this World Cup seems to be united in their frustration at the referees and their calls.   The end of what was a generally entertaining match between Brazil and Cote d’Ivoire was pretty much ruined by some bad decisions and some poor handling of the ‘scuffle’ involving Kaka.  FIFA seem to be unwilling to admit that referees are human and can make mistakes.  RTE are blue in the face trying to analyse the decisions of these men and more specifically their mistakes.  As long as they lack the assistance of a fourth official who has the power to call goals or decide penalties etc they are left stranded.  Extra officials can also be used for less divisive decisions.  Graham Poll had his reputation ruined when he gave three yellow cards to one player in the last World Cup.  While a mistake like this should not happen and is a major failing of any official, it could have very easily been avoided.  A fourth official at the end of an earpiece could have alerted him to the fact in a matter of seconds.

So what is the argument against the appeal system?  It will slow down the game and lead to too many stops and starts.  As an avid viewer of tennis and rugby, the use of hawkeye and the television match official has not reduced the entertainment levels.  The wait for a correct decision outweighs my desire to have a quicker match.  I do not believe that football would be adversely affected if a referee could admit he needed a second opinion once or twice in a match.  Even if players are allowed to make appeals during the match, as is the case in other sports, these can be limited to avoid too much disruption.

The lack of appeals after matches also seems absurd.  Most sports, motor racing and gaelic games spring to mind, allow appeals.  There is an acceptance that some decisions made by referees are incorrect and respect towards these officials seems to be maintained by allowing decisions to be debated.

I am fed up of undeserved yellow and red cards and unnoticed hand balls in this competition.  The referee singlehandedly destroyed the Germany -Serbia match on Friday for example.  Perhaps a fourth official isn’t the answer.   Maybe referees need a monthly review?  The referee who missed Henry’s handball is at this World Cup.  How and why?

Maybe the referees are not the only ones we should blame.  No player seems to have a problem diving, or indeed as is more common, over exaggerating an injury.  The discipline of everyone leaves a lot of be deserved.  One must imagine though that if the standard of refereeing were to be raised then the discipline of the players would move in that direction too.

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Free rugby, a most expensive mistake

Eamon Ryan has made me stop and ask myself a question this week, when and where did I start watching rugby?  At home on RTE or BBC?  In the pub on Sky Sports?  When my neighbouring school had a big match?  The answer is option c.  Minister Ryan would have us believe that we all sat down to watch a Six Nations match (or Five Nations match) in our front room and developed a love of the game that way.  If I am completely honest, I did not watch much of the Five Nations when I was younger and the reason for this is not surprising.  Ireland were absolutely terrible and there are only so many times you can watch your nation being beaten to a pulp.  What Minister Ryan is trying to do now could leave us in a situation as bad as those times, rugby we can all watch freely but not necessarily the standard of rugby any of us really want to watch.

Making the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup free-to-air is on first glance a rugby supporter’s dream.  While most of us without husbands, wives and children would probably go to the pub for the big matches, those who do not have the opportunity would be happy indeed.  However, the money generated by the IRFU from pay-per-view is more important to the game than we may ever have imagined.  The IRFU are facing a loss of €12 million worth of TV revenue if the Minister’s plan goes ahead .  Either one of two things would then happen, 1) the IRFU would have to reduce budgets and thus lose players, coaches and scouts to other countries, or 2) they would have to find money from elsewhere.  It is also possible that both of these scenarios could play out.  If the IRFU have to raise money we will see match ticket prices as well as merchandise prices soar.  The very supporter who would be saving money not buying the Sky Sports subscription would be hit from another angle.

Eamon Ryan does seem to have the interest of the general public in mind.  He is trying to provide rugby for the whole nation rather than just those who are willing to pay to watch it.  His argument that only the elite will be able to watch rugby seems ludicrous.  Anyone of any financial status can afford a coke in the local pub if they really want to watch a match.  However, more importantly, rugby has not gained its reputation as an upper class sport because of it being shown on Sky Sports.  The private school culture of rugby has been completely responsible for that.  If he really cares about more children seeing rugby should we not be promoting rugby clubs in disadvantaged areas?  He worries that children will not be inspired to play rugby if they cannot watch it on television.  Surely encouraging more people to play would be of more use than having more people watching from their sitting rooms?  Parents will not be able to afford tickets to matches if the IRFU are forced to increase prices, once again pushing children away from the sport.

The IRFU have claimed that slipping standards, which would inevitably occur if the best Irish players were forced abroad, would also negatively affect them on a world stage.  The International Rugby Board is only willing to listen to the strongest nations.  As a country of just over 4 million people, we have been punching above our weight in this area for a long time.  Weaken our rugby teams and you weaken our hand when it comes to the politics of the game.

So finally I refer back to the question posed at the beginning of the article.  I believe that most people will give the same answer.  If they were not watching their local team in their youth they were playing on it.  The future of Irish rugby lies there, not on RTE 1 or 2.

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The problem with Liverpool

Rafa Benitez, will have woken up this morning worried about his job but more importantly worried about what he’s going to do come January.  With the Champion’s League cash flow over for this season he is facing a transfer window in which he will be under pressure to make money, not buy a new injury free striker as he may have hoped.  In fact, Liverpool have earned very little from the group stages itself.  Money is distributed by UEFA according to results and the late concession of goals against Lyon could have cost the club over €300,000 each time*!  While Steven Gerrard is keen to encourage both fans and players that Liverpool will now win the Europa League, financially it is not even a second prize.  In 2007 when Liverpool lost the Champion’s League final to AC Milan they came away with a bonus of €4 million.  Sevilla FC won €2.5 million for winning the UEFA Cup the same year.   That competition may have a new name but its financial reward is considerably lower than the Champion’s League.

So a club which is trying to find a buyer is effectively in financial crisis.  However, the problem at Liverpool is not just financial.  Any football fan will tell you that luck always has a part to play and it would seem that the players of Merseyside (both Everton and Liverpool) have been hanging horse shoes upside down and walking under ladders.  Injuries have been coming thick and fast and well there is no point even talking about Darren Bent and the infamous beach ball.  A run of bad luck breeds a sense of disheartenment.   Maybe they were lucky to equalise in the seventieth minute against Manchester City or Birmingham but a draw is not the result any of the team would have hoped for at the start.  Blaming bad luck may be a bit dubious but the lack of confidence which it has produced amongst the players has become a tangible problem.

Then there is the manager.  But more importantly the manager’s crazy decisions.  Taking Benayoun off when he is the best player on the pitch.  Playing Torres in a crucial game when he is far from fit enough and thus risking a more serious and prolonged injury.  Acting as if a draw against Manchester City was a positive result.   Benitez has been notorious for his strange decisions, his inability to stick with a winning team but right now there is clearly a spark missing.  Liverpool need a Harry Redknapp, someone who can take a team from the relegation zone and have them beating teams 9-1 less than a year later.  Has he delivered anything?  Fernando Torres?   The Champion’s League?  The first was an obvious target.   The team that won the Champions League was without doubt the team of Gerard Houllier.  There have certainly been good days and he has achieved very positive results but the lack of trophies is without doubt hanging over his head.

Which brings us to perhaps the biggest problem of all.  The Liverpool Football Club which has been playing in the Premiership since 1992 is effectively the younger brother of the club which preceded it.  It has had to live up to the achievements of the beloved son, eighteen league victories, four European cups.  The younger son wins a lot of badges for effort, is runner up very often, is leading for two thirds of a race and then loses in the last mile.  When he does achieve something, it is always compared to the achievements of his elder brother, a reminder that he has more to do and to achieve.  The teams of old haunt the Liverpool team of today when in fact it should encourage it.  Nobody wants to become Notts Forest, the forgotten team who actually won the European Cup – twice.

There are certainly other problems and this is just the tip of the iceberg but it would seem that for another year Liverpool supporters will continue what has become their mantra – maybe next year.

*These figures are not exact.  They were correct when I wrote my dissertation in 2007.  We can assume they are similar this season.

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US Montmélian vs Marseille Vitrolles

US Montmélian are not an exceptional team.  In fact they are bottom of their group in Fédérale 1, the top amateur rugby league in France.  Yet, their match today against Marseille has attracted a lot of attention as it is the first match Jonah Lomu has played for Marseille since he arrived there less than a month ago.  To celebrate this occasion the match was broadcast on French Eurosport.

The Montmélian players were clearly overwhelmed by the fact that they were on television with the commentators even mentioning how much better the game would be if the cameras were not present.  This was as tough a match as I’ve ever seen.  Three players (two from Montmélian, one from Marseille) were taken off with serious injuries, two having been knocked unconscious and one after landing on his shoulders/neck when he was tackled in the air.  Everyone knew that the semi-professional team of Marseille would be too strong for the Montmélian side which trains for just 4 hours twice a week.  However, the difference in strength is unfathomable.  And this is all before you even consider who was wearing the number 13 shirt for Marseille.

The worst defeat Montmélian had suffered at the hands of Marseille was 42-22 earlier on this season.  Today they lost 63-18.  The loss of two key players in the first half hour due to the aforementioned injuries and the sending off of another for inflicting one of the two concussions meant that they were always on the back foot.  Of the 63 points Marseille scored, Lomu contributed none.  In fact, he only touched the ball a few times.   So why did Marseille win by such a margin?  It would seem that Lomu’s presence on the field was enough to inspire them.  He may not have done much with the ball but he did spend a lot of the match instructing players around him, which clearly paid off.  The fact that anytime he did get the ball it took up to four Montmélian players to stop him, left quite a few gaps, allowing other Marseille players capitalise.  They did so, by scoring nine tries.

Marseille are a club on a mission.  In a city where football is the game of choice this club has undertaken a ‘grand projet de rugby’ as their president calls it.  Lomu is not the only former professional, with several players now living out their retirement in Marseille and playing with a team which aspires to reach the professional leagues within the next two seasons.  This is a good team and Lomu when asked about his impact on the game claimed that he ‘didn’t really have to do much.’  He is just one of many good players on the team and today was certainly not the best.  It has been a long time since he has played so even this ‘living legend’ as a teammate called him, was a bit rusty.

Can Montmélian take anything away from this game?  They really never got into any kind of rhythm, conceding very early in both halves and losing three players early in the game.  They did score 18 points, all penalties and all taken by the same player.  Their number ten converted six of the seven penalties today and he did so in style.  While the team bus may be full of disappointed players and lacking a couple of others who are being hospitalised at present, one player may very well be on the phone to a professional club.  Being on Eurosport may have scared his teammates but his composure on this big occasion would put our own Ronan O’Gara to shame.

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Has the GAA qualifying system been a success?

2009 marks the ninth season of the GAA qualifying or back door system.  Brought in for the first time in the 2001 season it has given both hurling and football teams the opportunity to play at least two games in their respective provincial championship in any given year. Hurling, with fewer competing teams than football, has not seen as big a shift in dominance. (Although the new artificial provinces, introduced this year, will hope to achieve this eventually.)  How has the qualifying system really changed Gaelic football and has it been for the benefit of the sport?

Probably the most obvious changes have been the Saturday night games and the cross provincial fixtures.  Football, traditionally played on Sunday afternoons, has become a permanent fixture of Saturday evenings.  Teams who have lost the previous Sunday do not necessarily play in their own province.  They may be forced to travel the length and breadth of the country, sometimes over a hundred miles, to reach their competitors.  For the first time in the competitions history, weaker counties have been allowed to face competition from outside their province.

Of course, while this gives teams the opportunity to play more football, it also gives them the chance to reach the final stages of the All Ireland Championship, without winning their respective provincial championships.  For example, while Leinster has not enjoyed much dominance in the competition (having not won the All Ireland title since 1999) smaller teams, such as Kildare and Wexford have enjoyed longer summers than usual, making it to All Ireland Quarter and Semi finals.  However, the benefit to the dominant provinces is unmistakable.

Both Ulster and Munster have benefited from the strength of their teams.  In 2003, three of the last four teams in the competition were from Ulster and Tyrone won their first of three All Irelands in a final against provincial rivals Armagh.  The success of Tyrone and Armagh, who have won four All Irelands since this system was introduced, cannot be solely attributed to qualifying, but the rise of other counties in the province can be.  Counties such as Fermanagh and Monaghan, who in the past could not pass Derry or Down, or in recent years, Armagh and Tyrone, have made their presence felt in both All Ireland Quarter and Semi Finals.  In Munster the two strongest counties, Cork and Kerry have succeeded in reaching the All Ireland Semi Finals four times in the past eight seasons and met each other in the final in 2008.

By the time a team in the qualifying stages reaches the All Ireland Quarter Finals, statistically, they have as much chance of winning the title as the provincial champions.  The results seem to support this with four of the past eight winners coming through the qualifying system.  However, what the statistics do not take into account is the fact that the teams who did not win their provincial championships played at least three more games than the teams they faced in the Quarter Finals, not including any replays or extra time.  However, with the single exception of 2004, at least one qualifier has made it to the All Ireland Final since 2001.  It would seem that amateur player excel as they play more football and their fitness levels rise.  In the 1999 All Ireland Championship, the winning Meath team played just five games while Tyrone played ten games before winning the title in 2005.  The advantage gained from this experience is also helped by the fact that provincial winners often have to wait several weeks to play a competitive game after their victory.  In 2008 three of the four provincial winners lost their quarter finals with at least a three week gap between their games.  Most of the qualifiers had to wait just one week.

The qualifying system has made the game more competitive and players more motivated.  A loss early on in the competition does not mean the end of the summer for a team as it used to.  It has seen the rise of many small teams and the dominance of strong provinces.  However, in an attempt to give a boost to those who lose early on, it has given an advantage to those who do not win their provincial championship.  Obviously scheduling is a difficulty for the GAA, especially when replays are factored in but provincial champions should not have to wait almost a month to play a competitive game.  However, while a change is needed in the schedule, as fitness levels rise, competition grows stronger and the bar is constantly being raised, it is up to the team to remain competitive and not the GAA.

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Swimsuits – technology or doping?

Fina, the swimming governing body announced this week that it will ban non-textile swimsuits from 2010.  This comes in the week that the World Swimming Championships took place in Rome with the controversial polyurethane swimsuits being used by many competitors and helping some to world recording setting paces.  The main complaint about this action, it would seem, is not the banning of the suits, but rather the delay in the ban – some including Michael Phelps coach have threatened to pull their swimmers out of competition until the suits are banned.  This poses the question of how far sporting technology can go before its performance enhancing ability crosses a line.

Swimming is not the first sport which has seen a change in technology in recent years.  Footballs and football boots have changed shape, weight and even material in the past two decades.  There is little comparison between the wooden tennis rackets used until the 1980s and the modern carbon fibre rackets used today.  The clothes worn by sportsmen and women have also changed.  Rugby players now wear tight jerseys so opponents cannot get a grip as they run; athletes wear shorts and tops which give an aerodynamic advantage.  All of these are examples of ways in which technology has enhanced the sports, either by making people faster or by adding another element to the sport.  The suits will probably only be available to the wealthier nations and therefore give them an unfair advantage.  However, these wealthier nations (e.g. USA, China) already have better training facilities and better coaches and thus have an advantage over most other nations.   Where is the line between this permitted advantage and illegal performance enhancing?

The main prohibition in sport is of course drugs.  This is because it is agreed that with the right combination of drugs anybody, regardless of talent, can become a successful sports star, whether it provides more endurance or actually makes them faster.  The advantages which can be achieved through the technology I have mentioned cannot make a bad player good; they can merely aid the already talented sportsman.  These suits are considered to be a type of doping as they appear to turn relatively weak swimmers into record breakers.

So is Fina right in banning these suits or is it just holding back technological progress?  Sports around the globe are being faced with the question of whether technology is enhancing sport or moving it away from the sportsmen and women.  If all swimmers wear this polyurethane suit surely the advantage is neutralised and audiences around the world are treated to entertaining, world record breaking swimming.  If the suit is completely banned what is to say that another type of swimsuit will not be developed which provides yet more benefits to the swimmers.  Will Fina ban that when and if it happens?  In its attempt to keep the sport fair will swimming lose out on the technology which enhances other sports for fear that it might be considered doping?  Banning the swimsuit may work in the short term but technology is not going to stop moving forward.  Fina’s battle against ‘doping’ is only just beginning.

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