Silly Hats, Strawberries & Streakers – The Great British Summer!
June 20, 2010

World Cup Final tournaments are addictive; they should carry a government health warning!

Admittedly the football, in South Africa, has hardly set the pulses racing, largely due to negative tactics and coaches preoccupied with self-preservation. Never the less the atmosphere is vibrant, results have been refreshingly unpredictable and the ongoing debate over the suspect ball and the omnipresent vuvuzela, have all been riveting for the football enthusiast. Not to mention the soap opera which the England team has become! Hopefully the best is yet to come, in the final group matches and knock out stages.          

Meanwhile, in the shadow of the ‘greatest show on earth’ and largely neglected by the national media, the great British sporting summer rolls on. It is of course the traditional season for silly hats, strawberries and streakers!   

This week at Royal Ascot the premier flat race meeting has come and gone with barely a by your leave. But even this traditional preserve of the sport of kings was infiltrated by the World Cup, with a Ladies’ Day vuvuzela hat, paraded on the front page of Friday’s Times newspaper.         

The Wimbledon Championship, at the All England Club, has crept upon us almost un-noticed. As from tomorrow, tennis enthusiasts will be descending on SW19, hoping for that elusive British success but ever ready to drown their sorrows with lashings of Pimms and strawberries. Normally the sports pages would have been hyping up Andy Murray’s chances for the last week or so, but in this World Cup year he has barely rated a mention. Hopefully this might work in his favour?

Similarly the razzmatazz of the county cricket T20 competition is passing us by and the forthcoming one day internationals will probably go unnoticed by many. Not by me though! I’m looking forward to making my debut, at the SWALEC stadium in Cardiff on Thursday, for the day/night England v Australia game. I’m looking forward to seeing Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann (a couple of part-time  Notts players) and, weather permitting, I anticipate it might prove the perfect antidote to England’s football performance against Slovenia on Wednesday!  

Yesterday, on the other side of the world, in Sydney, the England ruby team raised their game, at long last, and ‘hammered’ the Aussies 20-21! It was their first win ‘down under’ since they lifted the World Cup in 2003 (on the same ground) and only their second away win in two years. But this narrowest of victories might prove vital in England’s rehabilitation process, almost certainly keeping Martin Johnson and his coaching team in their positions until after the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and perhaps proving the turning point we’ve been waiting for. Ever the optimist!

I don’t like to upset my Welsh family members by referring to their latest performance against the All Blacks, so I suggest they look away now. They were soundly thrashed 42-9!

Finally a mention for Formula 1 (Scalextric for grown ups!) where two Brits continue to the lead the way in what is becoming a highly competitive championship. It was good to see the oft maligned Lewis Hamilton back at is his best in Montreal and last year’s champion Jenson Button proving he wasn’t a one hit wonder!  Next up his Valencia, in a week’s time and then Silverstone on World Cup Final day!

I wonder what odds I might get on England to win the World Cup, Andy Murray to lift the men’s singles and a Hamilton/Button 1-2 in the British Grand Prix? Dream on!

Strangers in the Night!
June 19, 2010

On Friday, ‘ol blue eyes’ and ‘Strangers in the Night’ came to mind! England played like a scratch pub team, who had met up for the first time five minutes before the kick-off, as pass after pass went astray. Then there was the episode of the phantom intruder who waltzed into the England dressing room intent on giving our bereft team the benefit of his opinion.

Given that the anonymous interloper had made such short work of the FIFA security my curiosity was roused. Was it an undercover visit from Franz ‘the Kaiser’ Beckenbauer, popping in to reaffirm his earlier claim that, “What I saw from the English had very little to do with football.”  After last night’s sorry performance I think a few more might be with him on that one now!   

It was a huge disappointment for ‘birthday boy’ Fabio, not the sort of celebratory performance he had in mind, I’m sure. He seemed genuinely at a loss that the England players we see playing like world beaters, week in  week out, for their clubs and strutting their stuff on the training ground didn’t turn up for such a big game.

To be honest the rest of us could have tipped him the wink:  “Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before, they just know, they’re so sure that England’s  gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away” etc.  (Badiel & Skinner) 

Of course, no team sets out to play badly, get booed off the pitch and castigated in the national press. They’re not the first team to disappoint at this year’s tournament but what made last night so unpalatable was the apparent lack of pride and passion. Too many players seemed weighed down by the occasion, the ball was like a hot potato and nobody appeared to want to take responsibility. This was Algeria after all, a 3rd world nation in football terms!

The honeymoon period with the media is clearly over for Fabio but I don’t go along with the criticism currently being levelled at him.  It’s little use turning on the coach and questioning his methods at this late stage. Let’s be honest, under Sven Goran-Ericksson, we qualified with some style for the 2006 World Cup but once at the finals the players under performed and we stuttered and spluttered our way to a quarter-final exit. We were told it was down to Sven not showing enough passion on the touch-line, being too loyal to certain favoured players, allowing an overly free and easy attitude in the training camp, and of course he never had a plan B when things weren’t going well.    

This time around, Fabio Capello undoubtedly shows passion from the dug out. He’s not been afraid to leave out players with big reputations, has a more austere and remote persona with the team, clearly runs a tight ship and has experimented with different formations, but seems to prefer 4-4-2 . Once again the team have under performed (so far at least) and now it’s being suggested that this is  because Capello’s style  inhibits the team and they are afraid of expressing themselves for fear of making mistakes.  

The media can’t play it both ways. We have seen two distinctly different approaches from two very different coaches but, both in 2006 and currently in 2010, our ‘top players’ have frozen on the big stage. Is it a mental attitude born of an unrealistic national expectation after years of  under achievement, or do we merely over-estimate their abilities? Are our England stars as good as we think or do they just look good at club level where they are in teams along side genuine world-class players who have the technique and creativity to provide them with the extra time and space they don’t get when playing with the national side?

Fabio isn’t one to panic or to pander to calls from the media.  I think he’ll get the team up for the do or die game against Slovenia and we will squeeze through. We might even, depending on the opposition, briefly flatter to deceive by winning our quarter-final and fleetingly raise national hopes once more before the inevitable anti-climax in the semis, probably going out on penalties; “Everyone seems to know the score ” etc!  I guess that would be judged a relative success.  

However it turns out there’s one sure thing, ‘ol blue eyes’ will spring to mind again with visions of Capello singing, “I did it my way!”

South Africa Youth Day – The Soweto Uprising Remembered
June 17, 2010

On June 15th we received the long awaited Saville Report into the atrocities of Bloody Sunday, 38 years ago in Northern Ireland.  

Yesterday, June 16th, was South Africa Youth Day, a national holiday commemorating the 34th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. The parallels are there for all to see.

The Soweto riots grew out of student protests against the ruling National Party’s apartheid regime which forced children, from black only schools, to be taught in Afrikaans, or in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “the language of the oppressor”.

Resentment grew amongst the children of Soweto, resulting in the formation of a Students’ Representative Council which organized a mass rally, in order to make their voices heard.

The student demonstration was planned with a degree of secrecy which took parents and teachers by surprise and, on the morning of June 16th 1976, thousands of black students walked from their schools towards the Orlando Stadium.

It set out as a peaceful protest but police barricaded the road along their intended route and a diversion had to be taken towards the Orlando High School. Estimates suggest that by this time up to 10,000 students had gathered; singing and waving placards.

When a police patrol arrived, to marshal the demonstration, the majority of students continued to march peacefully but some children reacted by throwing stones. A handgun was drawn and fired, causing immediate panic and chaos as the students fled for safety.   

Emotions were running high and, following a subsequent escalation in violent retaliation, 15,000 heavily armed police, supported by armed vehicles and helicopters, were deployed to the township. Shots were fired indiscriminately as means of dispersing the rioting crowds.

Government figures maintained there were 23 student fatalities whilst the Reuters news agency put the figure at ‘more than 500’ with over 1,000 men, women and children wounded.   

The BBC’s World Cup football coverage has been matched by a series of excellent off the field reports, providing a valuable insight into the recent history of South Africa and how the ‘rainbow nation’ has emerged from the apartheid era into the free country it is today.

Yesterday, following a report by Garth Crooks on the Soweto Riots, we saw Desmond Tutu, accompanied by former Dutch international Clarence Seedorf (right), at an Africa Youth Day celebration, where he reminded a group of students You and I, old and young, now have a very precious thing, this freedom that was bought with the lives and blood of all – young and old, black and white.”

On a lighter note he also said it was it was important for South Africans to rejoice in their moment of World Cup glory and that foreigners must accept their traditions, including the controversial vuvuzela, which was an integral part of their games. He urged football fans to blow them even louder!

Meanwhile, broadcasting  from the BBC studio in Cape Town, prior to last night’s South Africa v Uruguay game, Gary Lineker reminded viewers that not long ago his panel of co-presenters, Alan Hansen, Lee Dixon and Emmanuel Adebayor (right) would not have been allowed.

Unfortunately ‘Bafana Bafana’ could not add to the Africa Youth Day celebrations, losing 3-0 to a Uruguay team inspired by former Man Utd player Diego Forlan.

Look to the stars!
June 12, 2010

Bafana Bafana momentarily reached for the stars while France looked anxiously to the stars in their opening World Cup matches yesterday. And lest we forget, England take on the stars and stripes of the USA this afternoon!   

The pride and emotion emanating from the Soccer City Stadium in Soweto yesterday was tangible, to say nothing of the incessant buzz of vuvuzelas! For 45 minutes Bafana Bafana  were clearly overawed by the situation and could have gone 3-0 down to a Mexican team who, sadly for them, had been cast as party poopers!

The second half was different. Bafana Bafana began to play the flowing football of which they are capable and the tournament was up and running after being set alight by a slick passing team move and stunning finish from Tshabalala that set the standard for goal of the tournament!

However, the reality check came when  Bafana Bafana, always prone to lapses of concentration at the back, were found ‘ball watching’ and  Rafa Marquez  ‘shinned’ the equalizer. South Africa came back gamely and might have clinched victory late on as Teko Modise rolled the ball, past one of the dodgiest international keepers I’ve seen for a while, against the post!

The sense of euphoria that greeted the final whistle was tempered by the reality that this is going to be a tough group for Bafana Bafana to climb out of, and all eyes turned to the up-and-coming France v Uruguay game.

The notion that cheats should never prosper  is hanging like a big black cloud over Les Bleus, given their fortuitous qualification courtesy of the hand of Thierry Henry. There is also the issue of the impending departure of their eccentric coach Raymond Domenech, a keen amateur astrologist who looks to the stars for guidance in his team selection, or as Alan Hansen described him in BBC’s pre-match build up  ‘a bit of a nutter’!       

Well as it turned out the stars weren’t  shining on either side and this potentially fascinating struggle between two decent teams  suffered from ‘after the lord mayor’s show’ syndrome, finishing goal-less.

Attention now turns to the big one in Rustenburg this evening and let’s hope there’s no reality check for Capello and the boys and that 1950 doesn’t repeat itself, 60 years on, when the three lions take on the bald eagles! You just know it’s going to be an edge-of-the-seat job so everything crossed and  vuvuzelas at the ready!