Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book review: In the Hornets' Nest by Joe Drape

A re-post from our affiliate book review site, Books with Balls.

The sheer sweaty bodyweight of beat writers attached to American sports teams makes books which chronicle one team's journey over an entire season relatively commonplace. It's not an original concept, and basketball teams lend themselves to these diaries more than most. The Jordan RulesA Season on the Brink (by John Feinstein) and The Breaks of the Game are required reading for hoops fans.

In 1988-89, two season chronicles emerged simultaneously about compelling storylines at opposite ends of the NBA. The Franchise examined Jack McCloskey, the General Manager of the Championship-winning Detroit Pistons; the other, by Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Joe Drape, detailed the Charlotte Hornets' first NBA season. The result is In the Hornets' Nest.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Brazil's next Golden Generation

The London Olympics get underway in mere hours.

The football, however, has already begun - with storylines aplenty.  North Korea's women have walked from the pitch in Scotland, heavily-fancied Spain were upset in their first match and finally, the football world is blessed to behold "Team GB".  True to British style, flattered to disappoint in their first match, a draw against Senegal.

And we will witness the rebirth of a football superpower.  

Brazil have stocked their squad with so much young talent that they must be considered firm favourites to collect their first football gold medal: AC Milan's Alexandre Pato, Manchester United target Lucas Moura, Chelsea's newest addition, Oscar, Santos star Ganso and finally perhaps the best Samba player to emerge since Ronaldo, their brightest star, Neymar.  

Most intimidating?  Each player on this list is 22 or younger.  Overage players include  Hulk - perhaps Europe's best player not playing in one of the big five leagues - as well as stalwart centre-back Thiago Silva.

The talent is so superior it doesn't just indicate favouritism for the Olympics, but also for the upcoming World Cup and beyond.  Not even Spain with Iker Munain, Juan Mata, Oriol Romeu and Javi Martinez can rival the Brazilians for pure, unadulterated skill.  

In fact, you arguably have to go back to the World Cup in Germany to find a Brazilian squad with this much natural ability - where Ronaldinho played in his pomp, Ronaldo and Adriano hadn't yet discovered the joys of pastry and Kaka was emerging as a real candidate for world's best player.  The last worldwide exposure we had to a Brazil team was in 2010 where a team of loping, playful souls were miscast as terriers by a terrier-like coach, Dunga.

This only juxtaposes the wellspring of youthful gifts on display.  The Olympic team is easily and obviously such a contrasts to the Brazil squads over the past half-dozen years that they should play with the joy of an uncaged puppy.  By employing senior team coach Mano Menezes as five-rings mentor, the FCB have also provided a direct link from the Olympic squad to the World Cup team.  

The football world should be sit up and take note of what promises to be a very amusing Olympic sideshow.  Because Brazil, so long the Olympic disappointment, won't be so this year.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tim Cahill joins New York Red Bulls

Tim Cahill MLS
Courtesy: montrealgazette.com
The New York Red Bulls have (all-but) signed Australian Tim Cahill from English Premier League side Everton. He joins MLS after eight successful years on Merseyside as a attacking-minded midfielder. He's the kind of player who can – and will – succeed enormously in MLS.

The time was right for him to move on. As one of the youngest members of the the Socceroo Golden Generation, it was time for him to follow his ageing brethren in leaving a major league for a more fiscally rewarding one. Already this summer, his head was turned by enticements from Al-Nasr of the Saudi Professional league, among others. After a down 2011-12, Everton manager David Moyes obviously thought it best to sanction the move.

Other factors play into Cahill's eagerness to shift continents. Meaningful minutes – despite his stature, not guaranteed as a Toffee – should cement his spot in the Aussie midfield at the World Cup in Brazil in two years' time; any impact he makes will also be the first any Australian has had on MLS, hopefully making Cahill a trail blazer for Aussies chasing a step up from the A-League.

Despite this move suggesting Cahill sees himself more as a big fish in a smaller pond, RBNY secured a major bargain with the acquisition. He remains one of the best headers of the ball in world football, and still ghosts into the box like he trademarked the phrase. These traits should combine well with the silk of Thierry Henry and further strengthen New York's MLS Cup push. Cahill's relative youth and a move back into the midfield (he's played out of position as a striker for much of the past two seasons) make him not only a bargain but potentially a league-wide star.

Friday, July 20, 2012

FIFA's five rules for ruling

Mohammed Bin Hamman's lifetime ban from all FIFA activities has been lifted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. He was last year found guilty by a FIFA panel of inquiry for attempting to bribe CONCACAF officials into supporting his bid for FIFA presidency.

Once more the world's most popular sport plunges into bureaucratic anarchy, unable to focus on anything other than defending themselves against accusations of self interest and greed. Much of the glare will be aimed squarely at Sepp Blatter: the incumbent president was elected unopposed when Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy after speculation as to his conduct arose.

Expect this one to stay before the courts for a loooooong time.

FIFA can now no longer accomplish anything without suit, controversy, speculation and countersuit. Any real work the governing body should be doing – like, say, rooting out corruption – is sidetracked by eternal self-defence. As an entity, FIFA has become so unwieldy and submerged in legalese that it seems to exist only to perpetuate their own power.

Any accomplishment whatsoever defies the contented inertia emanating from Zurich.

In the excellent (if slightly repetitive) book The Dictator's Handbook – Why bad behaviour is almost always good politics, two US academics assert there are five rules employed by each “successful” dictator. These rules allow a leader to stay in power almost indefinitely. All were followed – one way or another – by absolute rulers such as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Castro.

Those five rules, broken down, are:
  • Keep the ruling powers small
  • Keep the “electorate” large
  • Control the money
  • Pay your supporters just enough to keep 'em loyal and
  • Never take money from your supporters to make the population's life any better

It was one of those matter-of-fact moments when I realised all of these rules are explicitly – if not consciously – followed at FIFA headquarters.

Points one and two involve staying in power by abusing the electoral process, a skill at which Robert Mugabe excels. The ruling power is FIFA's Executive committee, of which there are twenty-four members; however, it can be said that only ten of these members have any substantive power. Secondly, the greater “electorate” involves all the governing bodies of all 209 recognised FIFA member nations.

When it comes to money, FIFA's main source of finance is the World Cup, which is doled out on cough, cough “merit”. It's the single most lucrative month in football, the prototypical golden-laying fowl, and enough to make politicians and administrators all over the world treat FIFA "dignitaries" with more respect than visiting heads of state. Any member of this cadre wants to stay - so they are paid just enough to keep them from upsetting the apple cart. Finally, why would any of these members risk the gravy train to give the average fans what they want?

Of course, this may all be just coincidence – these principles aren't necessarily applied only by dictators or absolute rulers, just those whose primary aim is to stay in power. Coincidence or no, there are just too many similarities for comfort.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, PSG, AC Milan and the carousel

Life is cyclical. Well, at least until it isn't.

However, in football, this is more strangely true than in many other realms.

Take for example Joe Kinnear, who reared his head at Newcastle United in 2008 after nearly a decade submerged by heart trouble, poor results and relegation. The man who signed his pay cheques? Mike Ashley, who was known as a shrewd businessman when he arrived Tyneside; the same man who lost millions – and, for about two years, his mind – before rebuilding the Magpies into a wonderful, cost-effective side.

His reputation may not be restored, but it is certainly rehabilitated.

The carousel nature of football finance has been fixed for years. Some clubs emerge to challenge the established plutocracy, often as those old money sorts trend towards a kind of faux-austerity. However, often the nouveau riche accomplish only a mild sensation before owners who arrive in Ferraris depart the scene in Greyhound buses. Nothing's easier than losing money in sports ownership.

If development isn't sustainable, even the most generous benefactor has a limited capacity for giving away their money. Eventually, if baseplates and failsafes aren't created, the carousel quickly rights itself and all returns to normal: old money persists and questions pursue those who got rich quick.

This week's transaction between AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain is of this nature. It was a handshake made of Rossoneri fiscal expediency and of PSG's owners, Qatar Investment Authority, buying that ugatti Veyron they always wanted. By shoving what amounts to fob change at both Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in that most notorious “double swoop”, QIA have rounded off their transfer expenditure at a satisfyingly even 200 million.

As Champions League winners Chelsea and EPL Champions Manchester City have succeeded, so too will PSG. At some stage, however, they will fall – Blackburn Rovers couldn't maintain their mid-nineties success while the most high-profile team of them all, the Galacticos, were only a moderate success. If expectations aren't met, impatient men blow up their creations and begin the cycle again.

Clubs like Liverpool, AC Milan, Barcelona and Manchester United have built up so much equity over decades that their ascent again has become a foregone conclusion. For entities such as PSG, who were created in 1970, that's not necessarily the case; a cycle isn't a short one but could mean years in the wilderness.

A ready example of how to spend their money already exists. Sheikh Mansour has achieved short-term results without sacrificing altogether future, a sign that he hopes to accumulate that same equity. Whether that has been the aim at Chelsea, QPR or PSG is still very much in question.

The old money temporarily cycles down as the new money rises. As always.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Short Pitch: Zakuani hugs the man who broke his leg

In front of a typically vocal northwest crowd on Saturday, Steve Zakuani made a touching return to MLS. He appeared as an eighty-sixth minute substitution and impressed: the first pick in the 2009 draft looked his usual energetic self. Zakuani had missed the past fourteen months after sustaining multiple fractures to his right leg, courtesy a reckless tackle by the Colorado Rapids' Brian Mullen.

His return wasn't special because he further increases depth in a formidable front line, nor because the occasion snapped the team out of a nine-match winless streak. His return was special because when the final whistle shrilled, Zakuani and Mullen searched each other out and hugged, exchanging jerseys in one of the most touching moments in MLS history.

Century Link Field achieved a small claim to fame in 2011 when the crowd set off seismographs during an NFL playoff game. On Saturday, reverberations were felt around the league as first Seattle, then the league offered Zakuani a warm welcome.

Sportsmen are often expected to display a stoic aggression that touches on bluster. Occasionally, decency is lain at the altars of gamesmanship and achievement. However, often the most powerful gestures on sports arenas aren't dripping with machismo but those where a player takes the opportunity to do the right thing. On Saturday, MLS was fortunate to see one of those moments.

Friday, July 6, 2012

AFL: Martin's suspension a symptom of wider problems

When Daniel Connors was sacked by the Richmond Football Club yesterday, the Australian Football League again displayed it's most brutal form of professionalism. Connors is twenty-three and will likely nominate for this season's National Draft. His chequered record makes it unlikely he will be given another chance and after 28 games he will be ejected to one of the AFL's myriad, bespoke scrapheaps – the EFL, the NTFL or even country footy.

It's not the first time Connors has made headlines for the wrong reasons, meaning his indiscretion has cost him far more than Martin. Of all the PYTs at Punt Road, Martin perhaps sparkles brightest, a straight-lines midfielder who has caught the eye not only of spectators but also, apparently, West Sydney's recruiting department. However, his penalty – a two match suspension – reflects both a first offence and the investment willingly paid into him by the Tigers and their fans.

Martin was suspended for a little under 10% of the season. The frequency with which AFL clubs impose sanctions like these on the young men in their care is startling: times are long gone where a wayward genius can be banished to the twos until he learns to see the coach's point of view. In fact, significant suspensions and, now, sackings are a penance required almost exclusively of Australian sportsmen – can you imagine an NBA team suspending a starter for seven games for an infraction like this? Or a European football club suspending a premier talent for three games?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Book review: Over Time, by Frank Deford

Frank Deford talks of his work Over Time not as a memoir but a we-moir, a collation of transient connections with figures more famous than himself. When asked to write a piece for alma mater Sports Illustrated about his early days at the United States' foremost sports magazine, he initially resisted; but as it became obvious there was a desire for a Mad Men style homage to the golden age of US magazines, no-one was in a better position to detail those salad days of the sixties.

Were you to boil down Deford's style to a single adjective, it would be wry. He is observant yet economical, distilling major events and people into their vital alchemy and transmitting what he absorbs with a pleasant mix of good humour and gravitas. He has used the same affable style for fifty years, through books, editorials and myriad essays; the result is four-hundred-odd pages of brilliant simple statements. In fact, Deford writes with vision and simplicity that makes readers often think “Why didn't I see it that way before?”

This geniality is only magnfied by an attitude of supreme moderation. Deford is a sporting centreist – as he proves with his weekly NPR commentaries – well aware of the unique position sport occupies in our cultural landscape. At a recent speech at the Seattle Public Library, he suggested both the import and triviality of sport by announcing the only two unnecessary cultural phenomena developed individually by every people have been sport and religion.

Acutely aware of his position as an observer rather than newsmaker, he presents his life journey quite superficially and bases his experiences around those in public life who were attracting the same attention. Where he writes about personal matters, it is almost entirely in regard to his artisanship, or concerning the athletes were the root source of his material and observations. A perfect example comes from one of the work's final chapters where he talks with shark Jimmy the Greek about their shared loss – children lost to Cystic Fibrosis.

This isn't your typical me-me-me book, detailing “my struggle against the odds” or a list of accomplishments made more impressive when taken out of context. Deford freely admits to benefiting from luck and the era in which he got his start. His writing is about his profession, rather than himself and as such you find yourself knowing less of the man than you would choose; no doubt Deford prefers this way. He revels in what he has seen throughout his career, being able to witness the triumph and despair that's inherent at any sport; at the same time however the career is obviously only part of the man.

However, because his scope spans five decades, he really does no more than touch upon so many of the topics that could conceivably sell Over Time: these are anecdotes of his time observing sport, rather than his opinions. The stories are personal and not hearsay; a particular example being when he caught a train with a young Muhammad Ali and found him searching for spiritual and emotional understanding, exploring that which would make him controversial. In this manner, his writing on Arthur Ashe is sad but upbeat and the reader absorbs Deford's patent respect for the great tennis player.

As a text for aspiring sportswriters it has no definite teaching points, or at least very few. Deford's lack of personal conceit contributes to this somewhat; his belief is that writing is something you can or can't do, something rarely learned well. This seems partially a cover for such a humble man about whom his craft agrees that he is the patrician.

While there are few absolute commandments, the aspiring blogosphere would do well to heed his obvious breadth of vision. The value of a broad intake of news and views is tacitly suggested, as being well-rounded provides writers with the ability to place sport and the context from which stories emerge into a more global spectrum.

It's a wonderful piece of writing. But from Frank Deford, would you expect anything else?