Friday, June 29, 2012

Euro 2012 Final preview

As we regard the Euro 2012 final, it's apparent that we will watch the tournament's two most irresistible sides. Spain have for four years been the international game's standard, a gestalt of tiki-taka, creation and industry. Italy, too, have been utterly compelling; where Spain have over a dozen world-class talents to call upon, arguably the Azzurri boast only a handful – their achievement has come primarily through unity, adaptability and system.

To some observers, their group clash was the best match of the tournament. Since then, the Italians have moved from unknown quantity to having a real puncher's chance at taking the Championship.

Italy manager Cesare Prandelli went into the tournament expecting to play a 4-4-2 with players rotating through a midfield diamond but opted for an unfamiliar 3-5-2 in Italy's opening matches against Spain and Croatia. When this proved only functional versus the Croats, Prandelli went back to his favoured formation which consequently produced sterling results against England and Germany. How they'll line up on Sunday is still unknown, neither formation would surprise.

Tactically, Italy are likely to attempt to free their key midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi. De Rossi plays deeper and has struggled to play the full ninety minutes on occasion; Pirlo, the team's creative hub, has been the tournament's best – if not necessarily it's most important – player. The only suggestion Italy may opt for the 3-5-2 again is to offer this duo more protection from a Spanish philosophy based almost entirely upon retrieving possession as soon as it is lost.

Almost to a man, Spain are circuitous, dutiful pests. They discombobulate opponents with tricksy approach patterns amid waves of possession seemingly engineered by Phil Spector. Possession is both weapon and targe; a plastic object moulded and shaped into beautiful creation.

Spain are likely to stick to their favoured 4-3-2-1. Their only question is whether to opt for a true centre-forward or keep Cesc Fabregas out of position as a False 9. With his choices in the semi-final – Alvaro Negredo, who was only mediocre before being subbed early for Fabregas – del Bosque appears to have made his decision. The presence of Fabregas could be crucial in pressuring Pirlo and De Rossi, while also allowing Andrés Iniesta to advance forward and create.

It's worth noting however that Spain have often looked best after withdrawing one of Iniesta, Fabregas or Silva and employing either Barcelona's Pedro or Sevilla's Jesús Navas as out-and-out wide players. This is probably because each triumvir prefers to operate in the centre of the park, while Pedro and Navas earn their coin down the flanks. It isn't that Iniesta or Fabregas can't do so – but that they prefer the field's centre.

Euro2012 logo
Both teams have developed their own effective methods of pacifying their opposition; the most important factor in producing a win from that power-position is the generation of goals. Perhaps the greatest fundamental difference between the two finalists is in each team's ability to draw a goal from the ether: in Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. Prandelli's two forwards have probably been two of the tournament's best and their mere presence – backed by impressive spells by Alessandro Diamanti and Riccardo Montolivo – mean the Italians can feel confident of scoring.

More than perhaps any other team, this Spain team lend themselves to analogy, simile and cliché. Pass and move. Death by a thousand cuts. They pass you to death. Metronomes. Boa Constrictors. They use Alan Rickman's spoon. They possess column inches and bandwidth like they do the football. A win would place them firmly among the best sides of all time, yet they've never had an iconic opponent or truly “all-time” match.

Sunday promises to be that mountaintop.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cometh the hour, cometh Prandelli

While Mario Balotelli once again proved he has enough talent to justify any of his off-field misdemeanours and Gigi Buffon has intimated that all he's still the silent member of the World's Best Goalkeeper club, the man most crucial to Italy's semi-final triumph wasn't a player but their manager, Cesare Prandelli.

Prandelli has achieved an Italian harmony through measures both regulation and unorthodox. He ha changed formation as required – employing Daniele De Rossi as a libero in a 3-5-2 – as well as deployed Serie A's most effective as his stalwarts, regardless of repute. However, what has set him apart has been his deft handling of a forward corps brimming with unharnessed, childlike energy.

Few managers have managed to obtain the best from Balotelli. However, without him the Italians would tonight start to return home to start their holidays. When at midseason Balotelli indulged his amusing wilful streak, he found himself banished from the Italian team with only an even chance of making the squad for Euro 2012. However, with time he was reintegrated into the Azzurri squad and has formed its most potent attacking weapon thus far.

A potential collaboration between Mario and the man he superseded as the enfant terrible of calcio? The stuff of Marcello Lippi's sweat-drenched nightmares? Rather than fearing a situation of knucklehead-squared, Prandelli has with an attitude of easygoing respect made that couplet not just workable but fearsome, all silky skill and unpredictability.

If Lippi wouldn't countenance leading his line with the terrible twosome, backing them up with the venerable Antonio Di Natale would have been an act of fevered imagination. Yet when Balotelli hobbled from the field with cramp against Germany, the manager turned not to a defensive option but to the diminutive Udinese marksman. This is indicative not simply of the faith he has in Di Natale, but of a changed culture around the Azzurri.

The mark of an excellent coach is that they achieve buy-in from their players.  From the way that Italy plays - from the performances he's mustered from players as wide-ranging as Andrea Pirlo, Buffon, Emanuele Giaccherini, Thiago Motta and, ultimately, Balotelli - it's obvious that he has his men completely invested in his gameplan, and he himself as leader.

A sense of controlled adventure is encouraged, an endeavour that has served them well against Spain and Germany. It appears an entirely different side from the one that didn't make it out of their World Cup 2010 group. That was disgruntled side who were trying to get back to where they once had been; this one has accepted that rejuvenation was inevitable and embraced it. That open attitude is engendered by the mangement of Cesare Prandelli.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Tony Greig's Cowdrey lecture

Tony Greig makes a lot of sense. Re-read that sentence because I probably won't type it again for a while – at least not while he consistently forces rubbish memorabilia down our gestalt craw on the telly. But, in his recent Cowdrey Lecture on the Spirit of Cricket, the man in the panama hat spoke passionately and – for the most part – incisively as to the state of the sport and issues facing the game in general.

He ruffled some feathers throughout, but what else could you expect? It's Tony Greig, for crying out loud! As far as he can make out, many of world cricket's problems come with the effective power of veto that India holds over the ICC; this, when combined with his unfortunate reluctance to address the Indian cricket cognoscenti as “the BCCI” rather than “India” means that Twitter was alight this morning with comment both moderate and vitriolic.

Tony Greig is not a buffoon. Occasionally he seems like it, but he is neither incompetent nor stupid. In fact, his references to legendary cricket writer E.W. Swanton and Alec Bedser were touching memories, sad in nature and an insight into a complex and – in his own special way – honourable man. It's a guess, and I may be doing some people a great disservice, but I'd hazard such personal, relational disappointments would be scarce in the autobiographies of many current cricketers.

That said, Greig is indubitably guilty of poor choices from time to time, as are we all. Unfortunately, his happen to be extremely high-profile. On this occasion, while highlighting some of those past choices, he unwittingly stumbled into another in generalising a cricketing culture too freely.

However, to dismiss all he has to say as wrong or even “establishment” just because the speaker has a past history of gaffes is incredibly short-sighted. Those gaffes shouldn't discount his every utterance, but instead mean his words must be examined carefully and sometimes taken with a grain of salt. I doubt Greig himself would suggest any differently, neither did he suggest his view was gospel – merely his opinion. While they must be considered, his past cases of foot-in-mouth have been used too often to flay Tony Greig without proper cause.

When invited to speak about a subject on which he is passionate, he gave his opinions. Any suggestions of ulterior motives or personal agendas are bunk. He addressed first and foremost the questions he has in regards to the game's future direction, a bearing linked inextricably with the globally-nuanced “Spirit of the Game”.

How an oration is received is a very personal process. Each listener will take home a completely different message as it relates to them and their world view. With that said, in my opinion the kernel of the lecture was a call for reconciliation and to attempt to move forward together.

It was unfortunate that the reference became somewhat confused, but Greig spoke of Nelson Mandela and the honour in which he is held by peoples everywhere – a man who was wronged, yet rather than wreaking his revenge when coming to power, did what he thought was best for the nation of South Africa. Mandela's global legacy will be one of reconciliation achieved through his struggle both as one of the oppressed and as a member of the powerful.

It's almost never perfect, and it doesn't solve everything, but reconciliation is an action of forgiving debts. It's a big ask because often those wronged have been so unfairly treated, and it certainly doesn't excuse or wipe clean past actions.  Though clumsy in his execution, Greig's suggestion is that giant steps can be made when parties approach each other not with self-interest but collective growth at heart.  Thinking of him altruistically, he then contends that because the BCCI (and by extension, India as a whole) holds so much power in the game, leadership on that nebulous issue of "Spirit" must come from that them.

The reason Greig's speech focused so much on India – how I wish he had said BCCI! – is simply because the BCCI are now the global creditors of cricket and find themselves in such a position after being mistreated for a long time.  In my opinion, Greig's point is valid and his premise strong; however he can be condemned for failing to separate the game's governing body from the nation as a whole. He has called for reconciliation, yet in some ways made it harder to achieve by misnaming those he hopes to entreat.

It was entirely Tony Greig – observant yet flawed, an exercise in his humanness.  Far from perfect but also far from an attack on India or their cricket.

Because Greig's speech was on the Spirit of Cricket it behoves us therefore as supporters and fans of the game to accept it with the grace inherent in that same Spirit of Cricket. That doesn't mean automatically redressing each of his suggested action points, but accepting his point of view – as his perspective if not a comprehensive one. Believe it or not – and the internet would love us to believe “not” – it is possible to accept someone's point graciously but still disagree with it. To shout him down is neither in the spirit of the game nor any decent spirit.

Some may suggest that Greig deserves no grace because his speech was delivered with none. Personally, I'd disagree with that, but surely – and to my mind, this is Greig's take-home point – if someone has operated without grace then the higher road, the more constructive path, is to be gracious in return rather than seek vengeance or simply dismissing them. This simple dictum is the core of many religions. From a global perspective, how often is revenge or even “getting mine” the way forward?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Euro 2012: On Spain and Popular Culture

When the immortal celluloid “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” flickered onto my television screen last year, I got quite excited. Carefree days of sixth grade came flooding into my mind, so I decided a re-viewing was in order.

It was rubbish.

It was typical, arch Costner replete with florid dialogue, a full-scale Swiss Family Robinson tree house in twelfth century Britain and Brian Blessed dying very early. Let's not even mention Celts making the unlikely silent pilgrimage from Wales to England's Midlands so as to attack said treehouse.

And the less we talk about Costner's mullet, the better.

However, re-watching left me in no doubt as to the film's best line, delivered in a cadence that linguists can only describe as Ultimate Rickman: “Locksley … I'm gonna cut your heart out with a spoon!

In contrast, the novel “The Princess Bride” features the Spaniard fencing wizard Inigo Montoya. After watching his father cut down by the evil Count Rugen, the boy Inigo spends his entire life practising sword fighting so as to take his revenge. By the book's conclusion, Inigo cuts out his opponent's heart out so deftly, so precisely, that Rugen is able to keep fighting until the killing stroke. Montoya had planned this so Rugen could experience the same as heartbreak and pain he had felt as a boy.

So why is this relevant?

Because Spain, the best international team we've seen in years, have played throughout Euro 2012 balancing uneasily between the two. The Spanish midfield conjures memories of Inigo Montoya's ruthless precision, while their conversion rate (11.9%) exhibits spoon-like execution. Rather than Spanish forwards merely lacking a sharp edge, for all their time in possession – 221+ minutes over four games – la Furia Roja have mustered only 67 shots. In comparison, semi-final opponents Portugal have had the ball for only 166 minutes for seventy shots.

Like Inigo Montoya, Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso cut the heart from their opponent; but when it comes time for the killing blow, they discard Montoya's magnificent weapon and pick up a Rickmanesque spoon.

Going back over Euro 2012, we've posted several times about Spain failing to adequately capitalise upon their possession. With David Villa missing, manager Vicente del Bosque hasn't used Fernando Llorente, apparently distrusts Alvaro Negredo like a bent bishop while Fernando Torres has regressed almost into a glint in the eye. Their continued dominance while carrying baggage like this is nothing short of amazing. Even devoid of top class strikers they are indomitable – but not undefeatable.

The time has come for del Bosque to use his squad depth. It is time for Llorente, the target man who looks like an inverted pyramid and whose finishing instincts (and luxurious bouffant) have him desired across Europe. It is time for Spain to stamp their authority on Euro 2012 and well past time for Spain to put away Rickman's spoon.

Monday, June 25, 2012

When Cristiano Ronaldo isn't Portugal's main man

The European Football Championships enter their final week. Fittingly, the confederation's four best teams will contest the final matches of the tournament.

A joyfulness has been incorporated into the Teutonic predisposition for precision, while Spain have eschewed the previously successful “death by a thousand cuts” for “death by a thousand paper cuts”. Italy's on-paper mismatch of talent makes them more interesting than at any time since their 2006 World Cup victory and Portugal have created working weaponry from a formerly blunt object.

The most anticipated final matchup would undoubtedly be a rematch of the Euro 2008 final where Spain defeated the Germans to claim their first major tournament win since 1964.

If Spain's midfield can be thought of as a hydra, Portugal are well placed to complete the Herculean labour of subduing the many heads of la Furia Roja. In fact, the Selecção are such popular underdogs that they are in danger of losing that unfavoured status: it's becoming increasingly apparent that their strengths match well against Spanish weaknesses.

Spain's overriding failing this tournament has been an almost negligent attitude towards their end product. With Fernando Llorente out of favour, Roberto Soldado missing and Fernando Torres missing under completely different circumstances, their goals have, as ever, been derived predominantly from the midfield. The centre of the park will be as congested as in any match with the likes of Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Busquets lined up against the territorial Raul Meireles

The best method of countering possession dominance combined with such flagrant reluctance to shoot is with stout central defenders – like Pepe and Bruno Alves – and crucially, midfielders willing and able to carry the ball into positions which create the best springboard for quick and tricksy forwards such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani to exploit.

Portugal have improved in each of their matches, especially in the quality of the link play between defence and attack. A backline of Bruno Alves and Pepe should field no questions of resilience, the transition forward has come chiefly from unheralded sources: Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso. Moutinho certainly stood up to the challenge and while Ronaldo was the spearhead, thrusts were generated behind him and chiefly via Moutinho's creation.

Most things will have to fall to their favour for Portugal to win. They'll need Ronaldo at his direct best, Meireles to perform his role, Moutinho to advance the ball well and Good Nani rather than Evil Nani. But given their pedigree and a pragmatic manager in Paulo BentoPortugal could prevent the final of Euro 2012 being the typical sequel which fails to live up to advanced billing.

Friday, June 22, 2012

What if Cristiano Ronaldo played for Australia?

A relatively obscure fact about Cristiano Ronaldo is that he was once – a long time ago – eligible to represent Australia. His grandparents live in Perth, Australia's westernmost outpost, the most remote city in the world. It's not known if the Football Federation of Australia explored “recruiting” him, but it's highly unlikely given how passionately he represents Portugal. Greece forward Giorgos Samaras and Turkey defender Ersan Gülüm likewise have chosen other nations over Australia.

However, even had he chosen the green and gold of the Socceroos rather than his Iberian homeland, Ronaldo may well have not been accepted as easily as you'd think. We'd love his pace, skill, aggression and athleticism – but could Australians stand his hair? Certainly, many find his predilection for product rather unnerving; Ronaldo is undoubtedly one of the best footballers of all time, but often takes the field looking as if he's dipped his hair in a bucket of furniture varnish.

He certainly likes to stand out, and unfortunately that can lead to being lampooned just because you're confident enough to do so.  It's a good thing his ego appears puncture-proof.

This takes nothing away from his skill or achievement. But Australia, home of “Tall Poppy Syndrome” and about as cynical a country as you could find, doesn't tolerate sporting prima donnas particularly well. Much about Ronaldo has a touch of the diva: from his personal grooming habits to his demonstrative body language.  I'm honestly not sure how well he would fit with Lucas Neill or Sasa Ognenovski.

He'd be welcome, of course – Australia have sought a forward who can score like him since the game was invented.  Plus, who wouldn't want Cristiano Ronaldo apart from Sandro Rosell? That said, as Harry Kewell (Australian football's biggest ego) found out when playing the diva in the early part of last century, the acclimatisation process would probably be quite rough.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Breaking down Forbes' Top 100 highest earning athletes

Forbes is perhaps the highest profile business magazine in the world. It certainly boasts as much clout as any, and an effective part of this has simply been their willingness to create reams of lists: the Best Paid Actors, the most overperforming stocks for 1955.  The internet loves this stuff.  These aggregations are easy on the eye - and almost as easy on the brain.  But because it's easily digestible information, a interweb culture raised on instant gratification laps it up.

The following chart has its origins in one of Forbes' more popular lists.  It was released yesterday and estimates the net income for those highest earning athletes.  Typically, players in sports with broad appeal played by Average Joe do better in endorsements: those with the most lucrative sponsorship are usually golfers, tennis players, footballers and basketballers.  The best in motorsport earn as much or more in endorsements as they do in prize money or salary.  Players who form part of an extensive rotation - ie. baseballers and NFL players - can earn as little (!) as $100,000 for the year in endorsement deals.

The chart is broken down where an athlete's endorsement income is plotted against his earnings from salary or prize money.  Minimum qualifying income for 2011-12 was $16.6 million (US) for the year.  Athletes are coloured according to their sport.  As always, we recommend clicking on the chart to enlarge it.

Copyright Balanced Sports

The list is relatively easily broken down.  The two highest earners were both boxers who pulled in relatively minimal endorsement deals - considering the world's most highly paid athlete was Floyd Mayweather, who is currently serving a prison sentence for threatening his ex.  You can see the obvious trends - those most marketable NFL/MLB stars earn up to eight figures in endorsements (Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter respectively), but generally the highest paid players in those sports earn comparative peanuts by selling their name.

The list comprised four boxers, one sprinter (Usain Bolt), five golfers, eight motorsport aces (4x NASCAR, 3x Formula 1 and Valentino Rossi), five tennis players, ten footballers, 13 basketballers, 30 NFL players, 22 baseballers and two Indian cricketers.  It almost goes without saying that the three outliers - top red, and far-right greens - were Tiger Woods, Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.

Only two women made the list, tennis players Maria Sharapova and Li Na, who came in at 26th and 81st on the list, respectively.  Both only earned a small fraction of their total endorsement value in prize money, making them typical for their sport.

MLS: a taste of the Euros

Last night I saw the Seattle Sounders play Sporting Kansas City in a thoroughly enjoyable MLS encounter. It started uneasily,  however, as on a very pleasant Seattle evening we traipsed down to SoDo.
The trip involved me fielding several obvious-but-unhelpful statements from my companions, mutterings like “It's not like the Premier League” or “I'd rather watch the European Championships”.

 When the whistle sounded to end the tie, we'd taken in slice of everything we'd seen over the past two days of the Euros.

 Firstly, defender Paul Ianni scored a goal that reminded me of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's masterful strike for Sweden against France – one legged and using all his martial arts ability to stabilise his upper body while channelling all his power into his striking leg.

 In front of 47,000 singing fans – nearly the same attendance as saw England defeat Ukraine – Sporting Kansas City managed to grab an early goal, before Ianni's set-piece strike levelled the match in the fifteenth minute.

 In the second half, the match first appeared as if Seattle would dominate possession and the match as Sporting KC were pegged back by an impressive Sounders midfield. The ex-Wizards looked most likely to pinch a winning goal by quick ball movement on the counter-attack, which again reminiscent of so many teams throughout Euro 2012.

As if consciously mimicking yesterday's match between the Ukraine and England, a crucial goal (in this case the potential game-winner from Fredy Montero) became more transparent - most of the ball crossed the line, but not all - and we had ourselves a ghost goal.

 There was also plenty o' niggle, as KC persistently fouled a more fleet-footed Sounders attack; the fulminating when Seattle sub Alvaro Fernandez was sent off with a straight red in the ninety-first minute.
I didn't have to temper my companions' expectations when the game finished, just sit back and enjoy my beer as they enthused about our shared spectacle.

 It was a match that had everything that football can provide. The Euros have been fantastic, and it's been great to see the sport receive all the attention such a tournament deserves, but to think of MLS as a poor relation is unfair and patronising. MLS is what it is – a retirement investment, a development league, an enviable top tier. It is many things to many people, and is now creating its own impressive identity because of that multicultural background.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Victor Trumper by S.A. Rennie

My Favourite Cricketer sees the teams at Balanced Sports and World Cricket Watch invite the best cricket writers and bloggers to tell us who their favourite cricketers are - and, more importantly, tell us why they stand out.  Today's submission is by S.A. Rennie of Legside Filth.  You can find Legside Filth on the web at, or on Twitter at @legsidefilth

I never saw my favourite cricketer play; he died 56 years before I was born. But like a cricketing Alexander the Great he left behind him a legacy of achievement, literature, and myth, and changed the face of batting forever.

It could have been my first reading of Arthur Mailey’s recollection of bowling to him in club cricket, with its famous last line (“I felt like a boy who had killed a dove”). It could have been my first viewing, in the Lord’s museum, of that iconic photo by George Beldam of Trumper jumping out to drive, taken at the Oval when Australia played Surrey in July 1902. Whatever triggered it, my obsession became total and all-absorbing. I read everything I could about the man, spent a fortune on books and ephemera and bitterly rued the impossibility of time travel, because unlike Harold Pinter with Len Hutton, I never saw Trumper in his prime, and it was another time - a time when a batsman could successfully break the shackles of orthodoxy, could have stories told about his greatness as a human being and as a cricketer. That fascinated me just as much as the man.

If Trumper were a superhero, he’d have been rocketed to Earth as a baby from the planet Krypton to crash-land behind Charles Trumper’s boot factory. It is believed he was born in Sydney in 1877, but no record of his birth exists. There is a theory that he was the illegitimate son of an Auckland chambermaid, adopted into the Trumper family through a cousin of his mother’s. Like Phar Lap, he could be another hero New Zealand might claim for its own.

His accomplishments glow like an illuminated manuscript amongst fusty tomes. 300 not out against Sussex at Hove on his first tour to the “mother country” in 1899; first man to score a century before lunch on the first day of a Test match, at Old Trafford in that damp but glorious annus mirabilus of 1902; 335 in 180 minutes for Paddington against Redfern in 1903; that last, poignant hurrah at Lancaster Park where he contributed 293 to a record 8th wicket partnership of 433 with Arthur Sims for a touring eleven against Canterbury. That was in 1914; fifteen months later he was dead from kidney disease. News of his passing knocked the Great War off the front pages, and thousands of Sydneysiders lined the streets to watch his funeral cortege on its way to Waverley Cemetery.

Monday, June 18, 2012

What happened to Holland?


The Netherlands whimpered one final time, threw up their hands and now stumble away from Northern Europe. Three losses in a tough group has left the Dutch with fractured egos, a burnished reputation and questions as to the continued viability of employing manager Bert van Marwijk. Eviction from the tournament was always a possibility, especially in a group in which they were drawn against three other top-ten teams. However, the manner of their dismissal should be cause for extreme conern.

A constant tone of discontent undermined the tenuous harmonies of South Africa, goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg played all three matches despite poor play and two quality replacements, the Dutch defence showed as much resilience as a wet rolling paper and key players like Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder showed only a fraction of their full qualities.

Should he have any hope of retaining his position, van Marwijk will have to talk very hard – and potentially very quickly – to justify his creation: a dysfunctional iteration of the Dutch national team. Under his watch, Holland have displayed sublime talent, occasional violent streaks and a penchant for restlessness.

Any hopes of the Oranje making the same impact as in the 2010 World Cup was improbable almost as soon as the tournament began. Starting left-back Erik Pieters withdrew because of injury, while central defender Joris Mathijsen appeared unable to recover from an injury suffered playing for his club side. Despite a strong qualification campaign, Dutch achievements from two years ago appeared an effort of overachievement.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Alternative XI: Euro 2012 Overachievers

As is usual for a major tournament, Euro 2012 has allowed us to witness the full spectrum of players from World's Best to those who walk a matter of metres to the ground that's always been their home. This tournament, we've had the opportunity to see players previously anonymous make a stamp on the football world – in fact, many of the best performed players aren't paid by Real Madrid, Liverpool or Juventus, but by smaller clubs. The tournament is made brighter by those who rise from anonymity.

Here's a previously relatively-unheralded XI who've made their name at Euro 2012:

GK – Przemyslaw Tyton (Poland): Despite entering the year the fourth-choice Poland keeper, made himself a home-country hero by saving a penalty with his first touch of the tournament. Whether he is replaced by the shaky but better-credentialled Wojciech Szczesny is now a legitimate question, a prospect unthinkable before the tournament.

RB – Theodore Gebre Selassie (Czech Republic): Kills the grass on the right side of the pitch at Slovan Liberec, who will compete in the 2012-13 Champions League after winning the Czech Gambrinus Liga. The might do so without their right back, who will doubtless have admirers after his two performances so far at Euro 2012.

CB – Mats Hummels (Germany): How can the most desired young centre-back in world football, playing for the second-best attended club in Europe, be classified as an emerging player? Simple: Mats Hummels is elegant on the ball and resolute off it and gets his work done with the absolute minimum of fuss without courting attention at all. Releasing him will haunt Bayern Munich for years.

CB – Damien Perquis (Poland): Perquis came so close to snatching a win for Poland against Russia while keeping the tricksy combo of Dzagoev and Arshavin from wreaking havoc in the Poland defence. He'll should be acquired by larger French club from Sochaux on the back of his impressive Euros.

LB – Vaclav Pilar (Czech Republic): Pilar has scored twice so far at Euro 2012 and looks to be another smart piece of scouting by Bundesliga club Wolfsburg, who have already arranged for his transfer from Viktoria Plzen.

RM – Mathieu Debuchy (France): It's no wonder he's been linked with clubs as storied as Manchester United and Barcelona. Although typically a right-sided defender, he plays with such attacking zest he fits in well here in the midfield. He was probably the player of the match in France's first match against England despite flying under the radar until Lille's emergence last season.

CM – Roman Shirokov (Russia): Practised Russian football observers such as James Appell tipped the thirty-year old as Russia's breakout player. He lasted all of one match at Euro 2008 at centre-back, but links the beaters in defence (Berezeutsky and Ignashevich) with the seeker in attack (Arshavin and Dzagoev).

CM – Niki Zimling (Denmark): His injury in Denmark's second match allowed the Portuguese a much easier run in the midfield than Danish coach Morten Olson had hoped. Regaining him for their crucial encounter with Germany will be crucial Danish hopes of advancing

LM – Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine): The resounding flop of Andriy Shevchenko at Chelsea may have previously kept “the new Shevchenko” at Dynamo Kiev. After wrong-footing a redoubtable Sweden defence on many occasions in the Ukraine's first match, he's unlikely to be playing domestic ball for much longer.

AM – Michael Krohn-Dehli (Denmark): Fizzed the ball between Dutch 'keeper Maarten Stekelenburg's legs to win the Danes their first game of the tournament and leave the Oranje reeling. A constant worker so far this tournament and able to put together moments of brilliance despite middling club form at Brondby.

FC – Mario Mandzukic (Croatia): Took two quality goals in Croatia's first match against Ireland to put the Balkan nation in a great position in a tough group. Another discovery by the tireless Wolfsburg scouting system, he doesn't get much press despite scoring twenty times last season.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Simon Katich retired because Australia wanted him to

Simon Katich announced his retirement from First Class cricket earlier this week, ending a career that began when Mark Taylor and Paul Keating occupied the most coveted offices in the country. He leaves with a reputation as a hardworking player who moved up the order as his career progressed, starting at six and finishing facing the new pill.

Katich also leaves with a reputation for spirit; something which would surprise those who watched his Test debut during the 2001 Ashes series. Apart from his crablike wander across the stumps in playing each delivery, the most recognisable incidents from a long and quite distinguished career involve his 2009 bust-up with Michael “Bingle” Clarke in the sheds and his press conference last year, where he said what others dared not upon his axing from the Cricket Australia contract list.

Were he still opening the Australian innings with Shane Watson or David Warner, it's doubtable Katich would have retired. He felt he still had more to offer the Australian team and his stats backed him up. Western Australia certainly thought he had something left, as they wanted him to play 2012-13 for the Warriors.  The pay's also pretty good. 

 The enmity with Clarke contributed to Katich's replacement and almost certainly left him jaded and fed up with the politics inherent in Australia's only truly national game. Although maturing, Simon Katich had earned his place ... only to be dropped simply because of his age.

Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey fight the same battle every time they step onto the field. Both are older than Katich and appear near the end, but have no firm plans for retirement. When either fails, a gestalt Salomé appears, composed of a collective press, who screams persistent nonsense about ageing heads on salvers. The promise of youth is decried, a glorious future is prophesied – without admission that promise is all many Australian youngsters have to offer.

In a world culture where stardom starts early and young is better, Australia's sporting hierarchy leads the world. Since the country's failure at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Australia has prided itself on world's best youth development; in cricket, this has manifested in the once-vaunted Australian Cricket Academy, an offshoot of the Australian Institute of Sport.

In Aussie Rules football, the dominant sport, the average age of last year's Premiers, Geelong, was 26.6 years old and considered almost supremely old. The year before, the average age of the Collingwood's Premiership side was 24. This led the expansion Gold Coast Suns to select a squad with average age of just 21.2 years last term. Players are often given only one chance and if renewal is required, players at age 24-26 are the first to go. Precious few delisted players are later re-drafted; an anonymous teen's promise now supersedes proven capabilities of the known foot soldier.

The trend has begun to reverse somewhat as veteran players like James Podsiadly and Orren Stephenson are drafted for short-term impact and clubs countenance that there is life in the lower leagues past the age of 21, but this  psychologically-straitjacketing desire for youth still prevails.

Australian football clubs have cottoned on that fans want one of two things: wins, or hope for the future. If you aren't challenging for the title, you regenerate the entire playing list on the back of high draft picks and hard work. Players emerge to stardom early, destroy their bodies and retire to the paddock of fond memories by age 31. With the success of young teams like Hawthorn and Essendon, the Australian public is prepared to sacrifice mid-term results – wholesale – in the ostensible guise of long-term progress.

This simply doesn't work on the cricket field. The best players should represent their country until their position becomes untenable. Due to the persistent averageness displayed by Phil “Snicker” Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Chris Lynn et al., Katich, Hussey and Ponting should have been left to judge themselves. Creating space for young players to grow is a ridiculous argument – if the players can't dominate the Shield, there's little or no reason to suggest they will perform consistently at Test level. Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer and Glenn McGrath called time at the right moment – why should we treat Hussey and Ponting any different? Plus, although the dollars on offer cloud the decision, who else is better to judge?

Some athletes pick the correct time to go, while others hang on too long – here, cricketers could take a lesson from AFL players – but to simply remove Katich from national contention was ill-advised and affronting. At worst, a perilous drop in form deserves the oft-cited “tap on the shoulder”; Katich didn't receive even this much dignity in June 2011.

At least on Monday, his announcement carried a nobility not afforded by his former employers.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ukraine heat a portent of 2022 World Cup

While England and France slugged out a draw in Donetsk, much the same occurred two days prior some distance from the Ukraine. The likes of James Milner appeared totally spent with temperatures reaching 33o celsius in oppressive conditions.

On Saturday, the Australian Socceroos played Oman in their first 2014 World Cup Qualifier. The match was played in Oman, a hope, skip and Ashley Young dive away from Qatar – the site for the 2022 World Cup. With a 5pm kickoff, temperatures reached a rash-inducing 41o celsius. The argument that "it's a dry heat" is quite nonsensical: when the Weather Channel says it feels like it's 46° outside, it doesn't matter whether the humidity scale is at 6% or 60.

In the first eleven days of June, Muscat recorded eight days where the mercury raised above 37o; the lowest maximum temperature was 35o. The average June temperature in Muscat is 39o. Even more amusingly, 75% of June days are officially categorised as “hot”; the rest (24.6%) are officially classified as “sweltering”.

In news likely to cause players from cooler climes to melt like so many Wicked Witches of the West – I'm looking at you, Scotland – the maximum temperature in Donetsk today did not reach the minimum temperature in Muscat.

It's summer in the Northern Hemisphere. It's hot. Players expect to play in uncomfortable conditions and expect a quick turnaround time between games. However, hosting a major tournament in heat such as this is patently ridiculous, as is moving the tournament to winter to accommodate its fabulously wealthy hosts.

Never mind tough laws, designated drinking zones and the occupational health and safety of players, but fan health simply must have been more of a consideration before FIFA awarded Qatar the Cup.

If you can't take the heat, keep the World Cup out of the Gulf States.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Torres' role reduced again for Spain

The man they miss with the man whose form they miss
Spain manager Vicente del Bosque opted to start yesterday's match against Italy with four defenders and six midfielders. Ostensibly, Cesc Fabregas started up front – and indeed found himself forward more often than his midfield counterparts and scored his country's goal.

 It's unlikely Fabregas will start as far forward of the ball for the entire tournament given that Italy's unusual 3-5-2 formation (with a libero!) contributed to Spain's unfamiliar team selection. But rather than shoehorn a poorly-fitting player into the side in the name of orthodoxy, del Bosque announced that Spain's gameplan doesn't require the prototypical “no. 9”. Also, by not deploying Torres in his favoured role, he also tacitly admitted that he views the Chelsea man as a player only to be used in the right circumstance.

 Bountiful Spanish midfield quality suggests a replacement for David Villa is a luxury rather than an immediate necessity. Were Spain only to create six shots a game, an penalty box predator would be crucial. But by employing the pass 'n' press, Spain can philosophically expect to dominate possession against every team they play; they are likely to create enough chances against harried defenders from which a midfielder like Fabregas, Iniesta or Silva can score.

 This is the form and model of play which has seen Spain win their past two major tournaments. It is also the model in which Fernando Torres now struggles heftily. While serving his country well at Euro 2008, and despite the greatest collection of providers any striker could want, Fernando Torres' confidence issues meant he couldn't play the same role in South Africa and still can't now.

 Torres' Chelsea form this season was fair, at best. He played better as Chelsea reverted to a counter-attacking side, but still patently can't find his strutting best.

 Because Spain so dominate the ball, del Bosque now sees Torres almost exclusively as a player whose best use is in exploiting overextended defences; a player to be brought on fresh for the last twenty minutes when the game naturally produces more chances. His form has regressed to the point where he's now only a player to be used in one situation, a luxury. According to Sid Lowe of The Guardian, del Bosque said as much in his post-match press conference.

 This is a story simply because of Torres' reputation; on form he deserves to be in the squad, but hardly a shoo-in for selection. Spain still have Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo to use at centre-forward. However, without a more clinical edge in front of goal, Spain's goal of a third successive major tournament victory becomes more difficult.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Lookalike: Giorgos Karagounis

This is the kind of lookalike that could only come from a football-loving powernerd who boasts a vast familiarity with the works of deceased Gallic graphic novelists.

Greece captain Giorgos Karagounis scored the opening goal of Euro 2004, has captained his nation many times and is only four caps from becoming Greece's all-time leader in games played.  Despite advancing years, he's still the most crucial link in the Greece midfield.  He represents Greece better than their politicians.

And, he couldn't look more stereotypically Greek; the proof comes from Goscinny & Uderzo's 1968 masterpiece Asterix at the Olympic Games.  I think he's the second spartan from the right.

click to enlarge
Original photos above are thanks to: and

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Euro 2012: Easier to win than the World Cup?

Conventional wisdom suggests the European Football Championships are harder to win than the World Cup. There's reason behind this: despite increased familiarity with staff and styles, all teams come from a strong FIFA confederation and this means fewer easy wins and more Groups of Potential Fatality.

We can take a look at the final set of FIFA World Rankings before a tournament to suggest the quality of each field. These rankings are about as foolproof as a Bond villain's plan or FIFA's internal governance, but they are still the best mathematical evaluation available. (Even still, I won't ever believe the United States were ever the fourth-best team in the world). Also, given they are chundered out by computer according to wonderfully complex formulae each month, in theory they are equally uneven.

The table below suggests how powerful each tournament since the start of the millennium has been, using average and median FIFA ranks as a guide. A low average suggests a stronger field, a low median suggests that more of the world's elite teams took part.

Average FIFA rank
Median FIFA rank
Alleged Easybeat
Euro 2000
Slovenia, rank 45
2002 World Cup
China, rank 50
Euro 2004
Latvia, rank 52
2006 World Cup
Togo, rank 61
Euro 2008
Austria, rank 101
2010 World Cup
North Korea, rank 105
Euro 2012
Poland, rank 65

As you can see, the average FIFA rank for the past two World Cups has raised markedly as more nations outside FIFA's top 20 obtained qualification. This of course doesn't take into account home-field advantage, which will surely serve Poland well in this tournament. These numbers are also somewhat swayed: each team wins games in order to qualify, which in turn boosts their world ranking.

According to FIFA's boffins, Euro 2012 could be the strongest tournament since Euro 2000.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Obituary: Remembering Charlie Sutton

Image: Wikimedia commons
Charlie Sutton, the only man to coach the Western Bulldogs – née Footscray – to an AFL Premiership, has died at the age of 88. A man whose life exemplified pride in club and origin, he was born during the last of Footscray's successful VFA years before entering the VFL. Recruited to the Dogs from Spotswood Citizens, he embodied local and club spirit for seven decades, captaining, coaching and leading the boardroom as the club struggled first to emerge, and then to survive.

He earned renown as an uncompromising, iron-fisted back pocket. In an era where almost everyone ran in straight lines, regardless of human obstacle, Sutton's compact stature and ruthless attitude made him feared. He was the epitome of the back-pocket plumber, with no airs, graces or teeth.

Concentrating solely on his powerlifter physique and inexorable approach is to see only half the player. While his attitude and size defined his playing style, it didn't dictate his skill, which was formidable; when representing Victorian, he formed with Bernie Smith perhaps the greatest back-pocket duo the game has seen.

It was when he took over as coach that Footscray's story changed. His leadership and a bright bunch of recruits – Jack Collins, Brownlow medallist Peter Box and, crucially, Ted Whitten – brought the Dogs their sole Grand Final win of 1954. He taught toughness, responsibility and vim – traits with which the fans could identify. In winning the flag, the Dogs defeated powerhouses Geelong and the formidable Norm Smith-coached Melbourne, who were to win of 5 of the next 6 Premierships.

In a familiar story, it's probable that Sutton was replaced as coach for financial reasons. One of two transcendent stars in an amateur league, Whitten would be offered more financial and career opportunities outside Melbourne than the Bulldogs could provide for him as just a player. Serving as captain-coach doubled a player's match payment; the appeal to Whitten would have been obvious. No matter: Charlie would later serve as club President, omnipresent and omniscient to all matters Footscray.

Sutton coached the Dogs for three years after the flag to be succeeded by his protégé, the player he thought the best ever. Whitten is popularly considered the prototypical Bulldog, a boy who grew up in the shadows of the Western Oval and joined, then led, the only club he ever could. In doing so, he created a lineage that begat champions Doug Hawkins, Rohan Smith and Brad Johnson. While it's most public face, Whitten wasn't the progenitor of this dynasty, but Sutton.

Had it not been for Charlie Sutton, Whitten may have retired at age 21; if not for Charlie Sutton, EJ almost certainly wouldn't have grown into the man – the icon – he became. Charlie was tough, but honest and caring. E.J. Whitten was just a bigger, more athletic – and perhaps more eloquent – version.

Sutton was amongst the first inductees to the AFL Hall of Fame; and when in 2010 the Bulldogs created their own Asgaard, the first two honoured were Whitten and Sutton, inseparable again. No consideration was given to any others, nor should there have been. Their ground is named after one, while their best player each year receives a medal named for the other.

Charlie and Ted, forever Footscray Bulldogs 1 and 1A.

Perhaps Charlie Sutton is best defined by that 1954 Premiership cup. In 2008, the Bulldogs finished third on the back of great seasons from Adam Cooney and Johnson. Before the finals began coach Rodney Eade called a late-night team meeting in the depths of the MCG. When the meeting concluded, the players were led onto the surface to see a gnomelike figure in the centre, illuminated by the lights. It was Sutton, holding the 1954 cup. At age 84, he inspired half a group of cynical footballers to tears.

Charlie Sutton began the legacy of Bulldog champions who were men of the people. Players, and characters, to whom sons of the West could relate. No-one had a bad word to say about Sutton; the same applies to Whitten, Dempsey, Grant, Hawkins and Johnson. That in itself is a remarkable achievement. He will be remembered; he will be missed.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Liveblog: Rocky IV

Also known as Rocky IV: Jumping the Shark.

Opening rehash: Eye of the Tiger! In the first montage! The shiny hammer/sickle and stars/stripes gloves are a really 1980s idea, cold-war fuelled. Given that Rocky IV is notorious for it's overt propagandist direction, there's symbolism in the hammer and sickle glove exploding before the American one. I must admit to missing the brassy opening, despite an obvious love for Eye of the Tiger; you can tell this is the one Rocky movie not not scored by Bill Conti.

And we've got a Mr. T sighting! Mr. T is a hero of mine for everything from his mohawk/beard combination to his his quote-unquote “acting”. I've got a theory that when Mr. T appears, your day improves. It doesn't matter if your dog has died or your wife has left you, if you see Mr. T, you smile. That his mode of entry is usually utterly random only makes that smile goofier.

You've gotta admit that Mr. T, version 1983, has a seriously impressive physique.

The original Rocky was inspired by the Ali/Wepner fight of 1975, where Balboa was an unashamedly modeled on Wepner, a self-described moderate talent (listen to this 5Live podcast, it's fantastic). Only two sequels and six years on, Stallone ascends from willing, but limited, brawler to Ali himself; recreating here that most iconic fight, the "Rumble in the Jungle”.

04:19: Four minutes in, and you can't help noticing how well Rocky enunciates. He actually speaks in this film (and in Rocky III), rather the nearly-unintelligible mumbling of the first two. It's kind of true-to-form, as the more famous one gets the more media training one will receive ... oh dear.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Graphic: The most efficient teams in Europe

Following on from our half-season efficiency studies, the following chart demonstrates the each team's offensive/defensive efficiency in a single measure and compares it across all four European leagues.

Each team's defensive stolidity is calculated by finding out how many shots they faced per goal, while offensive precision is calculated by the same means (how many shots per goal).  There's little surprise that Juventus and Borussia Moenchengladbach had the best defenses, nor that Schalke, Real Madrid and Barcelona supplied the most clinical offenses.  Stay tuned for a year-to-year EPL comparison.

As usual, we suggest clicking on the chart to enlarge it.