Monday, 15 November 2010

Long Live The King

Not for the first time, the phrase “You’ll never win anything with kids” was dispelled with ostensible conviction this weekend, as Formula One bowed to a new world champion. At the tender age of twenty-three, Sebastian Vettel has achieved his inevitable billing as “the next Michael Schumacher”, having displayed stellar maturity beyond his raw youth to snatch the title from under his opponents’ noses. His adversaries Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber showed a glaring lack of pace throughout the weekend, allowing Sebastian Vettel an unchallenged race at the Abu Dhabi circuit from pole position on the grid. The young German’s immaculate drive was enhanced only by the inspiring precision of the Red Bull mechanics, who have barely fluffed their lines throughout the entire season. Conversely, Vettel has too often been the architect of his own downfall. His erratic and often careless driving earned him the nickname “the crash kid”, coined after spectacular collisions with Jensen Button and teammate Mark Webber, in which Vettel was entirely culpable. However, since the halfway point of the season, the man from Heppenheim has found the pace, confidence, commitment, and skill that would put Schuey to shame.

The pre-race predictions oscillated solely between the favourites Alonso and Webber, with Lewis Hamilton and Vettel barely being acknowledged due to the slightness of their chances. The German defied the odds though, lurking in the shadows of the media spotlight that quite conceivably dazzled his rivals, going in for the kill when everyone else was transfixed by the Alonso-Webber joust. Following his triumph, Red Bull would surely have invited the Renault team to join their celebrations; Vitaly Petrov produced a masterful performance to hold off Alonso in seventh, when the Spaniard required a finish of fourth or better to claim the title should Vettel win the race itself.
Critics of the Ferrari team and neutrals alike highlighted Alonso’s petulant gesticulating towards Petrov during the warm-down lap, the Spaniard ostensibly blaming the Renault driver for tarnishing his shot at a record third world title. This was further evidence of foul play from Ferrari, following their reprehensible team-orders debacle at Hockenheim in July.
Even the most passionate supporters of the prancing horse couldn’t fail to be touched by the Vettel’s perma-grin on the podium, beaming with delirious joy. Equally warming were the sincere congratulations and embraces dished out by Hamilton and Button to Vettel as the joined the new champion on the podium. It was a deserved victory for what was indisputably the strongest driver/car combination of the 2010 season. The majority of Vettel’s victories read from the recipe followed by the greatest drivers: take pole position, grab the lead at the start and stay in front all the way to the chequered flag. This is how such masters as Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Michael Schumacher in his prime used to do it - that way you stay clear of other men's problems. If Vettel continues to mature and eradicate his own teething problems, he has the potential to win many more titles.

Long before Michael Schumacher crashed out on the opening lap in Abu Dhabi, it was clear the seven-time world champion relinquished his reign long ago.
The King is dead. Long live the King.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Money Never Sleeps

The phrase “live fast, die young” could not be truer. As the saga surrounding Wayne Rooney thunders into its second week, it does not take a genius to observe that his metamorphic acceleration to fame at just sixteen years old has facilitated some momentous character flaws. Rooney’s inherent egocentricity was promulgated in no small way by the £26 million that Manchester United paid Everton for his services back in 2004. Since then however, it seems Sir Alex Ferguson’s authority has diminished perceptibly. No stranger to ruthless squad culling, Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ruud Van Nistelrooy represent high-profile casualties that were jettisoned by Ferguson in acrimonious fashion. Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2009 lingers in the memory because the Portuguese international maintained a level of respect and gratitude for his manager right up until the moment he pulled on the Real Madrid shirt.
While it has been revealed today that Rooney has now signed a new five-year contract at United, one must surely wonder if the player’s relationship with Ferguson has been irrevocably damaged. The whole saga reeks of “publicity stunt”, with Rooney recently losing his starting place, his sponsors, and his dignity, it took something incredible to turn the headlines back in his favour. It also represents something of a shift in the power circles at Old Trafford, with Rooney ostensibly holding his own manager ransom; it is therefore difficult to believe that this whole affair is motivated by anything other than money. Moreover, one cannot think that the United supporters can possibly reverse their furious death threats back into the loving adulation that once reverberated for Rooney.
Sir Alex Ferguson meanwhile would do well to quote Monty Python at his next press conference: “He’s not a messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”.

Friday, 1 October 2010

PGA Ryder Cup 2010: The Greatest Game Ever Played?

On the dawn of the 38th Ryder Cup, the stage is set for Europe and USA to lock horns in what will surely be the most tantalising tournament of the year. Team USA Corey Pavin deployed a precursory barb on Tuesday night by recruiting Gulf War pilot PGA Tour professional Major Dan Rooney to motivate his troops. Colin Montgomerie opted for a more traditional pep talk by bringing in the Welsh rugby union hero Gareth Edwards, as he continues to prime his players for combat. Team Europe were also treated to an inspirational speaker-phone call from the magnanimous Ryder Cup legend, Seve Ballesteros, who continues his battle against cancer after being struck down by the affliction in 2008.
The onus lies firmly with Montgomerie and his men to wrestle the trophy from the grasp of the Americans. Team Europe will be hoping the Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco, can form a formidable partnership, while the two effervescent Northern Irishmen Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell can convert their friendship into a pernicious pairing. Such has been the astute level of Montgomerie’s preparation and assiduous handling of the media that there has been little insight into the faring of the world number one, besides the visible lack of “birdies” accompanying him at Celtic Manor. It is rejuvenating to consider the huge popularity of the Ryder Cup in the current sporting context of astronomical winners fees, bonuses and sponsorship deals, that the world’s golfing haiso, continue to be romanticised by this tournament.

One sport however, is becoming increasingly bereft of its amateur sporting ideologies. The Tour de France precarious reputation was dealt another blow after this years’ winner, Alberto Contador, was recently revealed to have failed a drugs test during the Tour. Professional cycling has been palpably rife with doping since the sport was established in the 1890’s, but the International Cycling Union should be credited for its continued viability over the years. The ICU has remained true its professional ethics by disclosing similar offences by Ezequiel Mosquera, Li Fiyu and Floyd Landis, despite the somewhat perverse effect on the sport.

However, as Ed Smith investigated in the BBC documentary “Is Professionalism Killing Sport?” the weight of professionalism can often stifle creativity due to its emphasis on performance and results, although some sportsmen are unaffected by such pressures. Usain Bolt continues to mesmerise audiences worldwide with his Herculean performances on the track, regardless of the opaque doping allegations that plague him. Bolt’s congeniality comes from his inherent enjoyment of athletics that has been sustained since his childhood. It is a similar kind of joy that we reap from seeing the childish grin of Lionel Messi every time he scores a goal. Other sportsmen such as Roger Federer, Lewis Hamilton, Ryan Giggs are successful because they maintain that child-like enthusiasm throughout their careers, playing principally for enjoyment rather than fortune.
Perhaps this is why Colin Montgomerie carries an unbeaten record into the tournament that holds no cash prize. The question is, can Team Europe profit from “Monty’s” magnanimity?

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Rain Man Reigns Supreme

For most drivers, it is their kryptonite; it depletes their super-human abilities with exciting truculence. As the Formula 1 paddock returned from its mid-term haitus with a smorgasbord of bangs and pirouettes, only one man could make his machine dance in the rain at Spa-Francorchamps, and he now leads the World Championship.

The series of showers that engulfed the Ardennes region gave way to safety cars, delectable drama, and title contenders dropping like flies. Fernando Alonso’s retirement means both Scuderia drivers are out of the championship, in spite of the “Ferrari-gate” debacle that plagued the German grand prix. Mark Webber and Robert Kubica stayed on Lewis Hamilton’s tail commendably throughout Sunday’s enthralling race, ensuring a close finish between the first three drivers.

But once again, Sebastian Vettel’s youthful exuberance has irrevocably damaged his title chances, while simultaneously erasing the chances of Jensen Button. The Brit was comfortably nurturing his damaged McLaren around Spa in second place, before Vettel lost control speared Button’s flank. Careless accidents, despite their spectacular nature, are becoming something of a trademark manoeuvre for the young German. Vettel’s collisions in Spa and Turkey, along with the drive-through penalty in Hungary are proof of the chronic inexperience that blemishes his enormous potential.
Mark Webber, his Red Bull team-mate, epitomises the perfect balance of experience and ability, a blend that makes him joint favourite to take the championship title, which one hopes will be contested until the last lap of the final race. However, in head-to-head duels, Hamilton’s sheer pace and fearlessness render him the victor, as Kimi Raikonnen, Alonso, and Massa have found to their disdain over the years.

It is pleasing to see the emergence of two more German talents – Nick Heidfeld and Adrian Sutil – both of whom overtook Michael Schumacher with disturbing ease, as the Regenmeister’s appears increasingly pedantic as the season progresses.

Germany may soon be able to boast a number of championship contenders. I just hope it rains in Monza next Sunday.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Old Habits Die Hard

In the heat of battle, sportsmen employ ruthless, choleric tactics to manufacture the most minuscule advantage over their opponents, but no-one could ignore the events that unfolded on lap sixty-five at the Hungaroring, overshadowing what had been a truly enthralling Grand Prix.
The harsh, cold light of day has hit Michael Schumacher hard during the season heralded as comeback time for, statistically, the greatest Formula 1 driver in history. Deep down past his steely nerves, Schumacher must know his time is up. His teammate Nico Rosberg sits on 94 points to Schumacher’s 38, hard evidence of how far the The Baron has fallen from grace. Conspiracy theorists may highlight that Rubens Barrichello recently dethroned "The Stig" from his pinnacle on the Top Gear lapboard, thirteen months after Stiggy removed his helmet to reveal his true identity as, yep, Herr Schuey himself. While Top Gear portrays about as much serious motoring advice as Pineapple Dance Studios, the issue of ramming adversaries into concrete walls at 180mph is no laughing matter.
Like Monaco 2006, Jerez 1997, and Adelaide 1994, Schumacher still toils to apologise or admit transgression. He is clearly a passionate, ruthless competitor whose hunger shows no bounds, but even the most fervent Schumacher fan would struggle to refute his seemingly inherent malevolence. For that reason, it was warming to see Barrichello finally wrestle his way past the inexorable Mercedes GP driver as retribution for five years of faithful service as Schumacher’s back-marker at Ferrari.
In contrast with the nauseating events of Hockenheim the previous weekend, Ferrari’s current darling Fernando Alonso produced a solid drive characteristic of his profound raw talent, which merited his second place finish and thwarted a Red Bull rout.
Despite team director Christian Horner’s sustained proclamations of calm and civility between his duelling drivers, the body language of Sebastian Vettel towards his teammate suggests otherwise. While Mark Webber’s victory saw him vanquish the championship lead from Lewis Hamilton, Vettel apparently lacks the experience required to devise an effective racing strategy when all the tools at his disposable have proven fruitless. Conversely, Webber possesses such knowledge in abundance, and has the car and mental strength to take the championship flag. He is one of the good guys - one accolade that Michael Schumacher will struggle win.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Open Championship 2010: Oosthuizen victory signals new democracy

The man they call “Shrek” could easily have been mistaken for an impassive tourist on the West Sands such was the humble level of ostentation radiated by the South African on Sunday evening. Louis Oosthuizen’s Open victory at St Andrews represents more than a tournament condemned by certain quarters of the media as “boring”, and it would be foolish to underestimate the feat of Oosthuizen’s achievements. The South African’s performance over the four days were characterised by his infallible composure, in direct paradox to the wild gales that battered the Fife coast. Had it been Tiger Woods in Oosthuizen’s shoes, the entire planet would be genuflecting reborn beguilement for the World Number 1. Woods’ delusion was evident in the aftermath of the Open, as he mewed: “I played well, but I didn’t make any putts”, as if to insinuate that putting doesn’t constitute any part of ‘playing well’.

While it is difficult to condone that Woods’ has been very much the architect of his own downfall, his fall from grace is not unprecedented. The lesson of St Andrews, it seems, is the lesson of Pebble Beach, Bethpage, Hazeltine and Turnberry, four recent majors that produced unexpected winners. Professional golf is a more democratic arena these days - anyone can win – and that makes it all the more endearing.

The sport is struggling in traditional heartlands, such as the UK and the US, where golf club membership is down significantly, but in Asia its popularity is growing. China, South Korea, and Thailand are countries to which the European Tour, and increasingly so, the PGA Tour are looking to in the search for sponsorship.

Professional golf is therefore encompassed by a period of flux and uncertainty, headed by a roll call of major winners that caught everyone by surprise.

This is the post-Tiger Woods era, and I welcome it.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

FIFA World Cup 2010: Spanish sun keeps on rising

No amount of smoke and mirrors could disguise the 2010 World Cup Final from what it was – the clash of two footballing pioneers garrotted by a tactical battle shorn of blood and thunder. It was fetching that a tournament so concerned with unity and concord should bow out in such an rancorous manner, but ultimately, eloquence conquered pragmatism as the Spanish were deservedly crowned world champions. Victory against Brazil proved that the Dutch were capable of playing their native Total Football when it mattered, but against Spain the Netherlands sacrificed beauty for brutality in hope of subduing their illustrious and superior opponents. Van Marwijk deployed his destructive midfield duo of De Jong and Van Bommel, who set about the Spaniards with tenacious bone-juddering challenges, while Howard Webb worked overtime to keep temperatures below boiling point. The cynical Dutch tactics paid off as Spain operated hurriedly and wastefully, in fear of being chopped down by the orange scythes, only for Arjen Robben to squander two golden opportunities to put Holland in front. After the half-time interval, Spain re-emerged to play the mesmerising, captivating passing game that spectators across the globe know and love. This was the pivotal moment when the Dutch accepted their dream was dead. The famous Holland squads of 1974 and 1978 did not believe in their own ability to succeed; the team of 2010 believed in themselves too much. No one can condone that the Dutch were somewhat inferior to the craft and guile that oozes from every sector of the Spanish team. The two central defenders have been insurmountable throughout the tournament; Sergio Ramos bombs forward and tracks back with equal panache, while Pique safaris up-field and pings a multitude of flawless sixty yard passes towards the predatory David Villa who lingers on the left flank, before incising deep for the kill. The king of the team is undoubtedly the Catalan colossus, Carles Puyol. He is a defender’s defender, magnanimous to his colleagues and biblically unceremonious, often playing on a knife’s edge of what one would deem legal in the rulebook. It is Puyi whose thunderous header edged Spain past the stoical young Germans in the semi-final, most likely the last of his three international goals as he ponders retirement to concentrate on club duty.
However, Spain’s showpiece comes in the form of their midfield quartet, which also holds the key to their triumphs. As the raw Sergio Busquets continues his apprenticeship by efficaciously protecting his back four, Xabi Alonso becomes the heartbeat of the team. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta interweave in the final third while Alonso supplies the imperative yet seemingly innocuous short passes to them from his deeper holding role; he is the conductor to the orchestra, the drummer of the rock band: less glamorous than those around him, but provides the cadenced spine of the team’s operations.

Total Football’s prodigal son, Johan Cruyff, castigated his countrymen for playing hermetic “anti-football”, stressing that Holland still lost despite their coarse tactics. The Dutch betrayed their heritage, and it gained them nothing. For the good of football, one hopes the victors stay loyal to their beautiful passing philosophy, because nothing can halt the ascendance of this Spanish sun.