Tuesday, 4 July 2017

What is "British" anyway?

Yesterday's victories at Wimbledon for Johanna Konta and Aljaz Bedene, cheered on by patriotic British tennis fans, has sparked debate on social media and forums about whether or not we should be celebrating them both as British.


Konta, currently the world number 7, was born in Australia to Hungarian parents, but moved to the UK in her teens and took British citizenship in 2012. Bedene was born and raised in Slovenia but moved to the UK in 2008 at the age of 19. In 2015 he was able to take British citizenship having lived in the country for 7 years. Both call themselves British, and a Union Jack appears next to their names on the scoreboard, but many consider them not to be Brits because of where they were born.


But what actually makes someone British? It's a question that goes far further than the sports arena, but just looking at it from a sporting point of view, where do we draw the line. Officially both are British, although Bedene isn't allowed to represent Great Britain in the Davis Cup as he'd already played for Slovenia. If you consider her British, Konta has a great chance of becoming the first British Wimbledon Ladies Singles champion for 40 years, since Virginia Wade, but she herself, although she was born in Britain, lived in South Africa between the ages of 1 and 15. Would she be considered not to be British?


We even struggle sometimes with the nationality of sportsmen and women who were born and raised in Britain, with many feeling that the British press describes Andy Murray as British when he wins but Scottish when he loses. Similar accusations were made recently about current Tour de France leader and Welshman/Brit Geraint Thomas.


The fact remains that many of our sporting heroes over the years weren't born in the UK. It would wipe out an awful lot of sporting success if we didn't consider them to be British. Here are some examples:


Athletics

Mo Farah – Somalia

Linford Christie – Jamaica

Tennis

Greg Rusedski – Canada

Cycling

Bradley Wiggins – Belgium

Chris Froome – Kenya

Cricket

Kevin Pietersen – South Africa

Andrew Strauss – South Africa

Nasser Hussain – India

Ben Stokes – New Zealand

Matt Prior – South Africa

Andy Caddick – New Zealand

Devon Malcolm – Jamaica

Graeme Hick – Zimbabwe

Robin Smith – South Africa

Allan Lamb – South Africa

Basil D'Oliveira - South Africa

Football

John Barnes – Jamaica

Raheem Sterling - Jamaica

Terry Butcher - Singapore

Rugby

Dylan Hartley - New Zealand

Ben T'eo - New Zealand

Toby Faletau - Tonga

Bill and Mako Vunipola - New Zealand

Of course, adopting "foreigners" as sporting Brits can cause problems if not done properly or for the right reasons. There were fierce protests when South African runner Zola Budd's British passport was fast-tracked so she could represent GB in the 1984 Olympics, allowing her to bypass the Apartheid boycott. That ended in tears on the track too, after her clash with American Mary Decker in the 3,000m final. You need to be sure of your facts too, as the Welsh rugby team found to their cost in 2000 when it was discovered that New Zealand born Shane Howarth, who had won 19 caps for Wales, didn't in fact have a Welsh grandmother as had been thought.

Sportsmen and women representing countries other than the one where they were born isn't unique to Britain, and in many ways is simply representative of a modern society where migration is commonplace. Many African distance runners have represented European nations over the years, sportsmen and women who have studied at American universities have often ended up representing the USA, and New Zealand rugby has been regularly criticised for plundering the Pacific Islands for talent (2 of their starting line-up against the Lions on Saturday were born on Pacific Islands). It's simply not the case any more that an athlete representing a country would definitely have been born and raised there to parents who were also born and raised there, and does that matter - not at all.

So if we do see Johanna Konta raising the Venus Rosewater Dish on Centre Court, this year or in the future, I'm sure most of us will be celebrating it as a British success, just as most of us celebrated Mo Farah's and Linford Christie's gold medals, Bradley Wiggins' and Chris Froome's Tour de France wins and England's Ashes victories.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Further changes proposed that could change the face of football

I've written a couple of times recently about changes being mooted that aim to improve the entertainment value and fairness of football (see "Will penalty shoot-out changes make any difference to England?" and "A game of four quarters?"). Now some more tweaks have been suggested, by Ifab - the International Football Association Board. Will these improve the game, make it worse, or have no effect whatsoever if they were brought in?


30 minute halves


This is the proposal that has attracted most of the headlines. The idea, counter-intuitively, is to increase the amount of playing time. The logic is that there are so many stoppages in play during two 45 minute halves that the clock should be stopped a lot more often than at present, for example when the ball goes out of play, waiting for a free-kick or penalty to be taken or when booking players. With the clock only ticking when the ball is in play, the idea is that game-time would be clear for everyone to see. We would then not be left wondering how long will be added on for stoppage time or go home feeling short-changed. It would also discourage time-wasting.


However, whilst all of this makes sense, why reduce the length of the half to 30 minutes. Ifab claims that there are only about 60 minutes of playing time in an average "90 minute" match at present, so 60 minutes of play outside of interruptions doesn't actually help does it? Perhaps two 40 minute halves would work.


Linking the stadium clock to the ref's watch


To complement the idea of the clock stopping every time there's a delay in play, the stadium clock could be linked to the ref's watch so we can all see when it's running and when it's not, and exactly how long is left. It works in rugby and other sports, and makes perfect sense for football.


In other words, no more Fergie time.


No follow-ups from penalties


If a penalty kick is saved, rather than the attacking team having the chance to follow-up the ref would blow his whistle and the defending team would take a goal-kick. The aim is to prevent encroachment into the penalty area, but surely it hands an advantage to the defending team, who, let's not forget, are supposed to be getting punished for an indiscretion. We want to see more goals, not fewer.


More relaxed corner, free-kick and goal-kick rules


Kick takers could pass to themselves and goal-kicks could be taken whilst the ball's still moving, to speed up the game and encourage attacking football. Seems to make sense.


Goals to be awarded if a handball on the line prevented one


I think most of us would support this. Ghana supporters certainly would, as a handball on the line by Uruguay's Luis Suarez in 2010 prevented them from becoming the first African World Cup semi-finalists. (Suarez was sent off for the offence, but Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty, much to Suarez's delight, and Uruguay went on the win on penalties.)


Ref's can only blow for half/full time when the ball goes out of play


Again, this already happens in rugby and it seems to work well, apart from when penalty after penalty is awarded at the end of a game. This happened in the controversial France v Wales Six Nations match in Paris earlier this year, which saw 20 minutes of time added on as the referee attempted to get a scrum properly taken.


It would however have stopped Clive Thomas from blowing up with a Brazil corner in the air, a split second before Zico put the ball in the next for what would have been a winning goal against Sweden in the 1978 World Cup.


Only captains to talk to the ref


One that football should definitely pinch from rugby. Nobody wants to see those all-to-common scenes of players surrounding and harassing referees, who, let's face it, aren't going to change their decision anyway.
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Monday, 12 June 2017

Can English football "do a Germany"?

England are football world champions! Not unfortunately at senior level, but nonetheless, yesterday's 1-0 victory over Venezuela in the Under 20 World Cup is cause for celebration. It was not only the first victory but also the first appearance in a World Cup final since 1966, and it has of course got us all wondering whether it's an indication that the senior team might be on course for further success in the near future.

The day before another England Under 20 squad had won the Toulon Tournament, amazingly winning a penalty shoot-out to beat Ivory Coast in the final. Evidence indeed that English football is producing some impressive strength in depth.

However, the tag of "golden generation" has been hung around the necks of young England squads in the past, like a millstone. Never before has it been the label for a squad of World Champions, but still one has to wonder whether these talented youngsters will be able to take the next step, of securing regular places in the starting line-ups of Premiership sides and pushing for senior call-ups.

A classic example of a country that has managed to turn success at youth level into success at senior level is Germany. Having plumbed (for them) the depths of footballing despair with their group stage elimination in the 2000 European Championships they embarked on a root and branch reform of German football that helped their Under 21 side become 2009 European Champions, thrashing England 4-0 in the final. That side included the likes of Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Benedikt Howedes and Mesut Ozil, all of whom were present in the squad that won the senior World Cup in 2014.

So can England emulate their success? One key difference between the nations in the Premier League. With so much more money available to clubs than the Bundesliga it's much easier for English sides to go out and buy in ready-made talent than to nurture home-grown talent, and the prevalence of German ownership of German clubs also helped to develop a style of play that national sides of all age-groups shared with club sides.

The FA has to take credit for the investment it has made in developing talent, most notably with the St George's Park development, but it's the next step that needs to be put into place now. Many top clubs, such as Chelsea, loan out their young talent, sometimes to great effect - look at the season Tammy Abraham has just had for Bristol City - but he looks more likely to be sold than to feature at Stamford Bridge next season. Perhaps that's no bad thing, if he gets regular Premier League action, but surely England needs players turning out for its top clubs if it's going to finally end its 51 (at the moment) years of hurt.

But for now, let's just enjoy England winning a World Cup (even if the BBC didn't show them being presented with the trophy!).

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Even more problems for the Qatar World Cup


It’s been far from plain-sailing for the organisers of the Qatar World Cup since it was announced as the 2022 host country in 2010. Since then it has faced allegations of corruption in its World Cup bid, accusations of terrible treatment of migrant workers brought in to build the event infrastructure, criticism that its human rights record makes it unfit to host such a high profile event and problems with the staging date for the tournament (what with deserts being quite hot in the summertime) that have necessitated a move from summer to winter.
 

However, a political development has now threatened the organisation of the event further. This week seven middle eastern countries withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar and three, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have told Qatari nationals to leave their countries and banned travel to Qatar. The moves are a response to allegations that Qatar has been supporting Islamist terrorism, although the Qatari government has strenuously denied this. The knock-on effect for the World Cup is the possibility that raw materials used in their massive construction project could be in short supply, as much of it reaches the country via Saudi Arabia.

With a blockade effectively in place this causes a serious logistical problem for Qatar, but it also adds weight to the argument that they really shouldn’t have been awarded the World Cup in the first place.
 

Doubts about whether the stadia for major sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics are almost a tradition, but none have been bolstered by a blockade before. They still have five years to go, plus a few extra months now that the event has been pushed back from the summer to the winter, but the scale of the project is unprecedented, with even the city that will house the World Cup final stadium, Lusail, still to be built.
 

FIFA, who happen to be sponsored by Qatar Airways, have so far declined to comment on the situation, and have shown no signs since announcing Qatar as hosts of reconsidering its decision, despite the numerous problems. The 2022 World Cup still therefore seems certain to go ahead in Qatar, but one thing is for certain: it will be a World Cup like no other we have seen before.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Was it a good season or not for Man Utd?

Last night's Europa League final victory over Ajax gave Manchester United their first European silverware since 2008, when they beat Chelsea on penalties to win the Champions League. It provided a great boost to the people of Manchester in the wake of the terrorist atrocity earlier in the week, but on the football side of things, does it mean that United had a good season under Jose Mourinho or not?

As well as the Europa League they also won the EFL (League) Cup, the first time they have won two trophies in a season since 2011 (if you include the Community Shield, or since 2009 if you don't). Since Alex Ferguson departed in 2013 they have won just 4 trophies in 4 seasons (again, including a Community Shield), and fans have been struggling to come to terms with no longer being one of the best, if not the best team in England. Their seasons have gone as follows:


Manager

Season

Premier League Position

Trophies

Qualified for Champions League

David Moyes

2013-14

7th

Community Shield

No

Louis van Gaal

2014-15

4th

 

Yes

Louis van Gaal

2015-16

5th

FA Cup

No

Jose Mourinho

2016-17

6th

League Cup, Europa League

Yes

Although they have won trophies, they haven't come close to reclaiming the Premier League title that Fergie last won for them in his final season. The knock-on effect of that is failure to qualify for the Champions League, in which they have only made one appearance since the Fegie days. They will be in it next season courtesy of their Europa League win, but supporters desperately want to be gaining entry as English champions.

This season they were only beaten in the League 5 times, which only second place Spurs bettered, but it was their 15 draws that cost them a top 4 finish, and they ended the season 24 points behind champions Chelsea.

As well as struggling for silverware and Premier League competitiveness, fans have also complained about the style of football they have played. Brought up on a diet of attacking football, frustrated chants of "attack, attack" have rung out around Old Trafford for the past few seasons, including this one, and their goals-scored tally of 54 left them well behind their rivals.

This will certainly need to be addressed, but Mourinho will surely have a plan for next season, with or without Wayne Rooney, and he will undoubtedly be given the funds he needs to strengthen his squad over the summer. How much time he will be given remains to be seen though, as probably only a Premier League title will be enough to cement anyone's position as Alex Ferguson's true successor.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Can the Football League learn from the IPL?

In the IPL today Rising Pune Supergiant beat Mumbai Indians by 20 runs to reach the final. It was the first match of the play-offs, which follow a format that the Football League might want to take a close look at.

The Football League introduced play-offs in 1987 to decide the third team to be promoted from the top two divisions and the third from the third tier. They've proved invaluable in maintaining interest for fans longer in the season, but they can be criticised for seeing teams that had a considerably poorer season than others win promotion.

The team that finishes third in the Championship has no advantage over the team that finishes sixth, which does seem somewhat unfair, and can lead to situations such as seen this year when Huddersfield Town rested players for their last few matches. Once they had clinched a play-off place they had no incentive to keep trying to win.

However, in India the IPL the play-offs work differently. The top four teams in the league stage play-off for the title, but there are advantages for finishing higher in the table. The top 2 teams, this year Supergiants and Indians, play for the chance to go straight through to the final. The losing team then has a second chance, playing the winner of the sides finishing 3rd and 4th for a place in the final.

In the Championship this year this would have meant Reading playing Sheffield Wednesday, with the winner straight through to Wembley. The loser would play the winner of Huddersfield Town and Fulham, with the winner of that match also reaching the final. The matches would have to be single leg affairs, with home advantage for the side finishing higher in the league.

To me that sounds like the perfect solution - keeping the excitement of the play-offs and making sure more sides have something to play for at the end of the season, but now giving an advantage for finishing higher.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Will penalty shoot-out changes make any difference for England?

UEFA has announced that it is going to trial a change to penalty shoot-outs. At the moment, its research shows, 60% of the time the side that takes the first kick wins, which essentially means that the coin toss has a fair chance of determining who goes through to the next round.

The logic is that there's slightly more pressure on the team going second, because as the duel progresses they know that their miss would send them out, whereas their opponents would still get one more chance should they miss.

The proposal is to change the structure so that the teams alternate who goes first in each round of strikes. It's been explained as following an ABBA format instead of ABAB.

But the statistics aren't supported by England's experiences in shoot-outs. Their record of defeats on penalties is:

1990 - World Cup - lost to West Germany - England went first
1996 - Euros - lost to Germany - England went first
1998 - World Cup - lost to Argentina - Argentina went first
2004 - Euros - lost to Portugal - England went first
2006 - World Cup - lost to Portugal - Portugal went first
2012 - Euros - lost to Italy - Italy went first

That's six defeats on penalties, three when they went first and three when they went second, so based on England's experience there's no advantage either way - you'll beat England whenever you take your kicks.

However, the one time England did win on penalties, against Spain in the Euro 96, they went first, so perhaps there is some sort of advantage.

So would England have beaten Argentina, Portugal and Italy if the ABBA method had been used? Of course, we'll never know. Probably not given England's terrible penalty-taking skills, and they haven't looked like needing penalties to go out of tournaments lately.