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.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

FIFA World Cup 2010: The future's bright - the future's Oranje

The veneer of objectivity is never strong among Scotsmen when their eternal foe is slain in battle. However, after the England team palpably fell on its own sword at the hands of Germany, I couldn’t help but watch with glee as the Barmy Army lambasted the pitiful performance of their heroes.
The derogative amblings expressed by Franz Beckenbuaer may have riled the English players prior to the conflict, but once again the Kaiser was proved right. As journalists and fans alike aimlessly castigate their way through one scapegoat after another, from Uruguayan linesmen to FA grassroots coaching, there is no masking the hard facts. Throughout the World Cup, Capello confided in what was, unmistakeably, ‘kick and rush’ football. England deservedly reaped futile rewards for persevering such an ineffective strategy, and exited at the hands of a youthful German side.
One feels deluded towards believing we have witnessed the contrasting performances of an omnipotent German team, rather than an astonishingly sub-standard England side.
In fairness, this chimera has some substance. Germany’s current crop of players boasts an average age of 22, while captain Phillipp Lahm is already chasing his second World Cup semi-final at 23 years old. South Africa has been the proving ground for Joachim Löw’s arsenal of raw, but abundantly talented young sorcerers, namely Mesut Ozil and Thomas Müller. While the immortal utterance by Alan Hansen of “You don’t win anything with kids” is somewhat obsolete, achieving the correct balance between youth and experience remains as paramount as ever. But when kinder play with such precipitant effervescence, allowing youthful impatience and ignorance to flourish ahead of fear and caution, the world should bask in their glory. South Africa has been the first world cup of recent memory where the German side relinquished its ubiquitous, clichéd stereotypes. Terms such as “ruthless” and “efficient” were replaced by “adventurous” and “spontaneous” – qualities one would have expected from Brazil or Argentina. As such, an identity crisis emancipated among the elite European nations; while Germany played fast, free-flowing, counter-attacking football, Spain stumbled and scraped their way past opponents in an uncharacteristically pedantic manner. The exception was their semi-final victory over Germany, where the Spaniards finally reported for duty, flaunting the passing master-class that won them the Euro 2008. The omission of El Nino Fernando Torres notably revitalised the Spanish heartbeat, overwhelming the obstinate Blitzkrieg of their opponents. One hopes Spain carry their revitalised verve and elegance into their first ever final, although it remains to be seen who Paul the physic octopus predicts as victors.

Juxtapositioned and playing the “German way”, ironically, are the Dutch. Rather than aspire to the “Total Football” philosophy pioneered by Rinus Michaels, Holland have been staid and restrained in their unyieldingly pragmatic approach. The attacking trio of Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder utilised for harrowing and shadowing their opponents into surrendering possession. Not since Iceland supermarkets sacked their bright saleswoman, Ms Katona, have individuals played as close to the white line as Kuyt and Robben. Nevertheless, the Flying Dutchmen find themselves in only their third World Cup Final since 1974 and 1978, and victory would be the perfect send-off for Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. One thing though. If the Netherlands win on Sunday then Ryan Babel will retire with more World Cup medals than Johan Cruyff. Think about that.