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!

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.

The Kaiser, the Jabulani and the Vuvuzela!
June 15, 2010

The football on display must be pretty poor if the column inches are taken up with complaints about the match ball, the decibel levels achieved by the Zulu horn and the snide ramblings of Franz Beckenbauer!

Given that a reliable ball, which the players feel comfortable with, is fairly fundamental to a decent game, why oh why do we have these ‘quality’ issues at every international tournament?  

When Adidas launched the Jabulani ball, back in February, we were told its new technology would “enhance the thrill and excitement of the game.” Well there is no sign of that so far and in fact it might be argued that the players are so distrustful of it that they are playing with extra caution, therefore detracting from the game as spectacle. Yesterday, one match commentator rather disparagingly likened the Jabulani to, “those plastic balls you get free with petrol!”   

Arguably, the Germans are the only team, to date, to play with any degree of confidence and flair and they have been using this ball in their domestic Bundesliga for the last four months. The English Premier League is contractually bound to Nike and the England team to Umbro, so our boys haven’t been able to use it until four weeks ago.  Questions about competing on an even playing field spring to mind!

It’s marvellous what one good result has done to restore German confidence. The German coach, and fashion guru, Joachim Loew had come under considerable pressure back home, following his squad selection,  and we were told it was the weakest in years. Four goals later, all be it against the Aussies, and football supremo Franz Beckenbauer feels confident enough to pop his, not unsubstantial,  head above the parapet and have a pop at Capello and England’s style of play: “What I saw from the English had very little to do with football.”

Frankly, Beckenbauer, ‘the Kaiser’, an iconic figure of German football has never got over 1966 and never passes up an opportunity to criticise the old enemy. If I were Capello, I’d thank him for providing a ready-made team talk for when the two countries, almost inevitably, meet later in the tournament.

I’d also be having a quiet word with Jamie Carragher, who is whingeing a tad too much and was quoted today as saying the Jubulani ball is giving the Germans an unfair advantage. That’s exactly the sort of ‘fear’ they thrive on. It’s rather disconcerting that we already appear to be stock-piling excuses!

Finally, the controversial droning vuvuzelas continue to split public opinion.  If it is such an import aspect of South African football culture, which it appears to be, then clearly it has to be accepted and should not be banned at this late stage.

Anyway it’s not just Africans who are using them. They have caught on with supporters of every country. For FIFA to ban them would be the equivalent of banning chanting in England or the Mexican wave in South America!  Surely, professional players are trained to focus and are able shut out much of the noise and as for TV viewers; I’d be surprised if  technicians aren’t able to reduce the background noise level, which I’m sure will happen as the tournament progresses.

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!