Counting the cash cows

More of this and Uefa might be on to something

More of this and Uefa might be on to something

As I contemplate getting up at 4.45 on a Saturday morning to watch Bayern vs. Chelsea I not only question how I get my kicks, but also the status of the European Super Cup, and where it sits in the pantheon of recurrent non-events on the sporting calendar. After roughly two and a half minutes of concerted thinking time, it makes it into my top five.

What follows is a shortlist of damp squibs. To qualify it has to take the crème de la crème of professional sport in a particular discipline, and then make them perform in an event so devoid of meaning that it renders their efforts – and those of the watching public – almost futile.

European Super Cup

We begin with this annual fixture between the previous season’s Champions League and Europa League winners. Staggeringly, the Uefa equivalent of the FA Community Shield has been running, in one shape or form, since 1972.

Last year, Chelsea – as Champions League winners – treated the game against Atletico Madrid with utter contempt, lazily going 3 nil behind to a Falcao hat-trick in the first half, before saving a modicum of dignity in the second stanza and coming away with a 4-1 loss.

This year, the only reason I’m contemplating the early rise again is because of the José and Pep element. In popular folklore, José is the villain and Pep is the shining white knight. But, I’m an avowed follower of the cult of José; his prickly charm and insolent attitude trump Pep’s holier than thou persona for me.

That doesn’t hide from the fact that the event itself is a virtual dead rubber. Yes, there’s a trophy up for grabs, but the main baubles are handed out in May. At least the World Club Cup has an intercontinental edge to it. This is just an inconvenience to clubs whose attentions are now focussed on their domestic league campaigns.

NFL Pro Bowl

Can’t say I know much about this event but any game that ‘borrows’ elite sportsmen to play for a team they have no real affinity for, in what is essentially an exhibition match, has to be pretty prominent in this list.

Indeed, the annual match-up between the best players from the two NFL Conferences is in danger of being seen as a bit of a farce. Every year the biggest concern of teams is to avoid injuries to the star players. The Associated Press wrote that players in the 2012 game were “hitting each other as though they were having a pillow fight”, which can do little to aid the spectacle.

Other examples of all-star games can be found in the MLB, NHL and NBA. Thus this is what happens when obscure sports are propagated within national borders; there’s no foreign foe to vanquish (the presence of Canadian teams in the MLB and NHL doesn’t seem to provide that source of rivalry) so the deep well of nationalist fervour lies untapped.

All of which brings us nicely to the next event on our shortlist.

International Rules Series

Nice try, Tadhg. I'm still not buying.

Nice try, Tadhg. Still don’t care.

If no-one else in the world plays your sport why not just find the nearest equivalent, create a hybrid of the two, and manufacture a showcase event? That’s what the Australians and Irish did in the sixties when their own unique brands of hand-football were stewing in their own domestic juice.

To the uninitiated (99.9% of mankind), this bastard of a game takes representative players from the disparate worlds of AFL and Gaelic football and creates a mash-up which at least has the benefit of being as violent as it is meaningless.

It’s played twice every three years and, despite dwindling interest in the game, has been stubbornly propped up by the AFL in direct response to the success of the representative competition of their local football code arch-rivals, the NRL; whose State of Origin series is vastly more popular (and lucrative), sustained as it is by the mutual hatred between Queenslanders and New South Welshmen.

2005 ICC Super Series

This event at least has the virtue of having been recognised as a failure and has been scrapped. The ‘Super’ Series pitted the undisputed world champions Australia against a Rest of the World XI in three ODIs and one Test match.

The principle behind the event was that the Australian side had become completely dominant in world cricket, and had a reputation of being unbeatable. This basis was undercut somewhat as it was staged one month after the Aussies were beaten in the 2005 Ashes.

Suffering from a noticeable lack of intensity, the drab matches were played out in the half empty MCG and SCG and were all won comfortably by the home side. The Rest of the World XI, featuring stars such as Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Muttiah Muralitharan and, er, Steve Harmison, were a model of disunity.

Geoffrey Boycott described the series as a “bunfight” and said that there was “nothing that resembled cricket” in it. Wisden summed up the Test match as: “a terrible game of cricket. It had a small crowd, little meaning and was forgotten quickly.” Its first-class status has since been revoked.

The World XI players seemed to be there more for fun than anything else. Freddie Flintoff came up with some refreshingly honest opinions amidst all the bullish official statements: “I’ve got the Super Series in two weeks’ time. I can’t think of anything worse,” he said, adding on arrival; “I’m only here for the food.”

Presidents Cup

Suffering in direct comparison with the passion of the Ryder Cup, this event too struggles with the lack of pride that comes in representing a ‘Rest of the World’ (minus Europe) team. Worse, as any get-in-the-hole enthusiast will tell you, it’s not as if the Americans themselves are often galvanised by representing their country. This truly is a dead duck tournament, though you wouldn’t know that if you spoke to a South African or Australian golf nut.

Inaugurated in 1994, the Yanks have won seven of the nine tournaments, losing once and tying on the other occasion. But, really, who cares?

To tweet or not to tweet

A cyber troll, earlier

A cyber troll, earlier

There’s a question that’s been gnawing away at me for a while now: why would a professional sportsperson – or any celebrity for that matter – maintain a Twitter account? A vibrant social media presence seems to be an expected and accepted method of communicating with the public, but when it so often invites negative comment from ‘trolls’, the whole exercise seems to be fraught with too much aggravation.

Twitter, above all other social media sites, seems to attract a disproportionate number and level of vitriolic comments from its users. What drives this is usually a complex mix of jealousy, tribalism, idiocy and the ubiquitousness of the smart phone.

Take the recent example of Lee Westwood. What was notable for this tale of sporting cyber-bullying was that he chose (on the back of a conviction-aiding shandy or two, no doubt) to strike back. When abuse and ridicule is heaped upon star performers in the normally genteel world of golf, then something is badly wrong with society.

Football is often considered to be in the vanguard of advertising society’s ills and, indeed, it is in the cash rich super-stardom, otherworldly plain of the top-flight football where Twitter really gets out of control. For many, following a game via both TV and Twitter is an ingrained pastime. To do this without going bonkers one must choose who they follow very, very carefully. Any deviation from a stringently vetted set of followers into the broader Twittersphere will quickly reinforce the suspicion that the vast majority of football fans should be locked up for their own health.

Some of these people see getting a rise out of a famous, otherwise aloof, footballer as almost as much of a sport as the game itself. Any moron can self-justify their abuse of footballers with the catch all excuse of ‘banter’; that horrible term which encompasses inane, lowest common denominator analysis between experts on the pundits’ sofa as well as spiteful ridicule by a lonely man sitting at home in his boxer shorts typing away on an iPad.

What possible reason could there be to mock this man?

What possible reason could there be to mock this man?

Poor Michael Owen. Who did he hurt? Maybe some Newcastle United fans’ noses were put out of joint by his expensive injury-ravaged time on Tyneside. For sure, Liverpool fans don’t easily forgive a former player turning out for Manchester United. But the mocking tweets he received in response to his retirement genuinely saddened me. This is a man who is behind only Sir Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker and Jimmy Greaves in the England goal scoring charts for heaven’s sake.

He must have a thick skin. Certainly thicker than that worn by Darren Gibson, who famously lasted all of four hours on Twitter before the abuse became too much and he sensibly jacked it in.

The Ball Control guide to surviving on Twitter

There appear to be two separate approaches to maintaining a Twitter account in the face of unavoidable hostility. One option is to post anodyne comments along the lines of “great win from the boys today, the fans were brilliant as always, blah, blah, blah” and steadfastly refuse to interact on any other level with followers (other than to block anyone who gets a bit nasty).

The second option is to don the metaphorical Wellingtons and wade into online debate with ill-informed nincompoops. This is the preferred modus operandi of a minority of the blue-tick brigade; the likes of Joey Barton, Piers Morgan (not technically a sportsman, he wishes) and – God love him – David Warner. It obviously takes a particular type of individual to choose this course.

Probably the only sportsperson who successfully navigates a way between these two options is Graeme Swann. He has the wit and brashness to call out ignoramuses while also posting pithily waggish updates.

However, it’s also in @Swannyg66’s Twitter stream that we can most evidently see the reasons why sportsmen and sportswomen put up with all the inevitable hassle. Endorsements of Jaguar cars and high-end golf courses must be a decent little side-earner for a man with over half a million followers. Suddenly I don’t feel so sorry for Michael Owen after all.

*Advertise Here*

Give me something I can sell

Give me something I can sell

Branding. It’s a word heavy with meaning in sport. To those in club boardrooms it’s the lucrative differentiation of their product. For fans, its invocation evokes a weary response laden with the growing detachment many feel with the teams upon which they invest so heavily (emotionally and financially).

When Luis Suarez was caught in his race storm with Patrice Evra last year, Liverpool FC instinctively rushed to his defence. Kenny Dalglish stated it was “bang out of order” to suggest he had done anything wrong. In the aftermath, it was recognised by the American owners that the club had botched their response, resulting in significant PR damage. Dalglish was fired a few months later. When Suarez lost his head against Chelsea this season, Liverpool’s support for their player was notably more nuanced.

In the pursuit of more fans – and more of their disposable incomes – teams will go to great lengths to appeal to the masses. Every Premier League team has a community foundation funding local projects and arranges copious hospital and school visits by its players. They hire ex-pros as “Ambassadors” to tour the globe reciting the virtues of their great club. These initiatives undoubtedly have an impact on the balance sheet. The clubs’ commercial departments must be telling them so.

But, in an arena where everyone’s looking for an edge, are there any shortcuts to success?

It was instructive to hear one ABC sports reporter this morning lament why his young son had turned his back on his local AFL team. Who doesn’t think supporting the Lions is more exciting than cheering on the Magpies? Whereas Collingwood won the flag in 2010, the lad still chose mediocre Brisbane to barrack (or should that be roar?) for.

The ‘4 Ps of Marketing’ are Product, Price, Promotion and Place. Get these four elements right, the marketing gurus will tell you, and you can watch the profits roll in. In sport, perhaps ‘silly nicknames’ should be added to the mix. To call the Australian national football/soccer team the ‘Socceroos’ seems to make absolutely no sense unless a highly paid FFA suit has robust data stating it will attract more young fans to the sport.

I’m talking about official team names rather than individual’s nicknames. Though, it has to be acknowledged, in a highly competitive field, darts has produced some standouts in this regard*: Mark “Frosty the Throw Man” Frost, Scott “Scotty 2 Hotty” Waites and, who could forget… Steve “The Bronzed Adonis” Beaton.

An unlikely villain

To my mind, this whole sorry business is the fault of Emilio Estevez. The National Hockey League had teams boasting some great nicknames – New York Devils, Los Angeles Kings and the Montreal Canadiens – then, in 1993, on the back of Disney’s hugely successful Mighty Ducks movie (one that genuinely made me cry at the end), the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were born. The ridiculously-monikered Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild subsequently joined the league. It’s almost enough to remove all the credit Estevez had in the bank for Young Guns.

If there’s any semblance of moral integrity to that episode it is that the Mighty Ducks venture occurred after the release of the film so at least it wasn’t predicated on hawking cinema tickets (I’m conveniently forgetting about the disappointing sequel, D2: The Mighty Ducks, as anyone who’s seen it must). Sadly, there are examples of sports teams who have merrily adopted a new name so as to promote the wares of a third party. The New South Wales one-day cricket side are now known as the ‘Speed-Blitz Blues’, and the New York MetroStars MLS team now only answer to the ‘New York Red Bulls’ (but, like the F1 team, as a result of a takeover).

If you’re finding this all a bit disheartening, fear not. To find evidence of the enduring Corinthian spirit that draws us to sport in the first place, one must look, as ever, to the grassroots. Look, for example, at Centennial Park this Sunday to find the CACC Metrosexuals continue their unstoppable march towards the Sydney Morning Cricket Association winter title (Division 6)!

*It’s almost as if the less athletic the individual pursuit is, the more likely its protagonists are to adopt an entertaining nickname. See also, golf and snooker. Perhaps this correlation can be explored in another article, thereby providing a simple means of categorising ‘games’ and ‘sports’. For instance, the International Olympic Committee could employ a simple formula when deciding upon the merits of a sporting body’s application for membership; if, say, over half of their professional players have stupid nicknames: no dice.

Crystal Balls-up

I didn't see it coming either, Bob

I didn’t see it coming either, Bob

Nine months ago, your correspondent boldly/stupidly made his predictions for the upcoming Premier League season.

Among the pearls of wisdom was that City would comfortably win the league (finished eleven points behind United), Big Sam would be the first manager to lose his job (just been given a new contract) and Swansea would fall apart (top ten finish and League Cup winners).

Good job!

Only one prediction came to pass; but it hardly took the skills of Nostradamus to foresee Wigan would struggle this year – although they did, of course, win the FA Cup.

Thank goodness I didn’t put in print that I believed QPR would be pushing for a European place.

All this leads me to confidently state that Australia will definitely win the Ashes.

Simian Qualities

Why I'm not a graphic designer

Why I’m not a graphic designer

In mid-February, this blog posted a piece which, at the time, seemed mildly provocative, but born out of what appeared to be undeniable reality: Spurs were in danger of being overly reliant on Gareth Bale. The piece was carried by the Fighting Cock and drew predictable criticism from readers for its supposed overly negative aspersions on Spurs’ season.

Nevertheless, when Bale scored twice to help sink West Ham 3-2 on 25 February, The Sun (and others) well and truly hitched themselves to the one-man-team bandwagon.

All football fans think that the media – tabloids, in particular – are intent upon dragging down their club. The theory goes that in the competitive pursuit of sales headlines and stories become boiled down to their most sensationalist and extreme. For the most part, fans are right; the press do oversimplify; though any paranoia that suggests it happens more to their club than their rivals is, of course, a delusion.

What is also true is that the broadsheets watch what the tabloids do and then gleefully revel in haughty contrariness. If the tabloids say 2 + 2 = 5, then the broadsheets work with a more opaque formula (something like √(2 + 2 + 1) = 2.24?).

The deal you make when you read the sports pages of ‘quality’ papers is that you willingly fuel this conceit, as it is mutually beneficial; you feel intellectually superior to the red-top reading white van man, and the failed lawyers and stockbrokers who today make up the football news rooms of The Guardian and Telegraph can feel they’ve found their place in society.

So it was that the likes of The Guardian almost instantly started tearing at the prevailing narrative that had built up around Spurs and Bale. The football tactics critic (probably not his real job title) wrote a typical piece which, as far as I can claim to understand, asserts that without the team setting itself up to maximise Bale’s many strengths – “he is quick and powerful, technically gifted and can strike the ball ferociously with his left foot” – they would fail to get the best out of him. His boss, Sean Ingle then followed up with a Moneyball-type explanation of the editorial line.

Football is clearly a team game. I’m sure even the perceived knuckle-draggers a The Sun would agree with that. Stick Bale in the Andorra team, or in the, er, Wales XI, and you would see less match-winning brilliance.

But just sometimes hyperbole has its place in sport. Sometimes a sportsperson comes along who is so obviously superior (in form or consistent quality) to his/her immediate peers that eulogies must be colourfully made. The Guardian, at last, came close to acknowledging this when in its report of last Saturday’s 1-0 win over Southampton – where Bale AGAIN scored a decisive goal – it was stated that Bale “appears to be on a one-man mission to drag [Spurs] into the Champions League”.

In that spirit, I’m going to go further than two months ago. The recently crowned PFA and FWA Player of the Year is so far ahead of anyone else in this country that he’d materially improve any team in the world.

The Littlest Mourinho

Coming to a Premier League ground near you

Coming to a Premier League ground near you

He is managerial Marmite but Ball Control is an avowed apostle to the Cult of José. As a sporting pantomime villain, Luis Suarez is a mere understudy.

Even as his Real Madrid crashed out of the competition that provides his and their raisons d’être, all thoughts turned to Mourinho’s future, and where he would attempt to win an unprecedented third Champions League at a third club. The great demagogue, as ever, relished the limelight and gave a deliciously thinly veiled response to the inevitable questions re his next port of call; all but confirming that he’ll be back at Chelsea next season.

That he is expected to leave Real after only three seasons – to the apparent relief of many associated with the club – continues a pattern of nomadic adventure across Europe. Having previously moved from Porto (after just over two seasons; left a hero) to Chelsea (three and a bit; drummed out by the megalomaniac owner after losing an internal power struggle) and then Internazionale (two seasons; alienated the entire Italian press corps) we can look back on a trail of increasingly intense assignments, progressively culminating in implosion and rancorous recrimination.

With that history behind him, it took no benefit of hindsight to know that when he arrived at the Bernabeu José’s need for to be at the core of club affairs was always going to clash with the culture of Real Madrid. At Los Blancos Presidents are elected by the socios to act as modern day Caesars; providing chaotic melodrama for the masses, often by assembling and empowering an expensively acquired, short-term-focussed playing staff.

A manager of two halves

To this blog, grandstanding is the very currency of sport; in this, Jose delivers in droves. He also delivers success, which is why his stock remains high in the instant gratification era of modern football. To capitalise on the second element of his management you must therefore make peace with the more distasteful parts of his nature (such as this).

There are very few clubs around that would not countenance making that pact, though many in the upper echelon might think more than twice. Barcelona is one obvious example. The soon-to-be Pepped Bayern Munich is another. Manchester United, too, in the increasingly melancholic form of Sir Bobby Charlton, protest their morals to be too pure for what Mourinho would bring to the club.

Amongst Europe’s elite that largely leaves the cabal of nouveau riche, petrodollar-funded clubs such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain as seemingly natural bedfellows for the chequebook manager par excellence. The crucial difference between these two clubs and their precursor of Chelsea is that they are owned by Middle Eastern barons whose stated aim is to promote their region. In short, they want to buy trophies as well as the halos worn by the likes of Barça. Neither of them, then, would be keen on having their ‘project’ hijacked and ‘brand’ tarnished by a man who enters every club acting as if he is bigger than the whole operation.

It may be that Roman Abramovich is willing to relax the reins he has gripped so tight in the past few seasons (with moderate success) if it means more silverware – it’s hard to see Jose coming back without any guarantees of this sort. What we’re constantly told by the media is that the notoriously taciturn owner demands trophies to be delivered with style and panache.

Doesn’t sound very Mourinho, does it? But delusion reigns at Stamford Bridge. Why else would they believe they could foist a hated enemy like Rafa Benitez on the club’s supporters?

It may be then that José returns from his Chelsea exile and successfully exploits the deep pockets of Roman to bring more championships (and perhaps even European glory) to the Bridge. Once the relationships become strained, as they surely must in such an ego-rich environment, the hobo will be off again.

Who’s to say his destination after that wouldn’t be United? José’s eulogising of the 71-year-old Sir Alex Ferguson this season has been as nauseous as it has been transparent in its purposes. He clearly covets the top job in England and, with a debt of £359.7m to service, the ravenous Glaziers would surely be only too happy to put the principles of a club legend like Charlton to one side and throw their lot in with a man who always brings success, as well as acrimony.

It was just a bad dream, after all

Who among us has never made a mistake?

Who among us has never made a mistake?

This is a mea culpa. Ball Control, too, relied on a single source for its recent piece on the scam ‘Dream Football League’. The exclusive in The Times was taken at face value though, in hindsight, the satirical nature of the mooted 24-team league lay barely below the surface of the story; seen most obviously in the almost-comedic title of the non-event.

A retraction has finally been elicited from Rupert Murdoch’s august organ and Ball Control strongly feels it is right to do likewise. I AM TRULY SORRY.

So, while our source moves on to rebuild its reputation (and justify its online paywall), their source is (rightly) being hounded out of football altogether. The other man at the centre of the storm, The Times’ Chief Football Correspondent Oliver Kay, recently resurfaced on social media and, given the circumstances, has been given a fairly easy and sympathetic ride – consider, for instance, that his first tweet accompanying the report suggested he had doubts as to its veracity at the time: Often, when you write a big story, you’re desperate for it to come off so you “look good”. Not so sure this time.

The ire of the keyboard warriors has been focused not so much on the botched research of the story/reporter, but in the newspaper’s vehement denials of malpractice when it was all too clear that details of the DFL (including the logo used in The Times’ report) had been previously published as a work of fiction by Cahiers du Football. This seemed to many observers like the haughty actions of a professional media class unconditioned to admitting mistakes. Add to that the closed ranks of other journalists eager to defend one’s own so soon after the Leveson report and you get ample fuel for the fire.

The battleground of choice

The battleground of choice

Predictably, the guerrilla army of amateur bloggers were swift to pounce. Driven by jealousy towards those who are paid to do what they do for free, and buoyed by what they see as an arrogant ‘old media’ reeling in its death throes, the soldiers of the WordPress and Blogspot brigades trained their guns on Fleet Street. Whenever a journo popped their head above the parapet they were caught in the crosshairs.

Thanks heavens Ball Control will never garner the scrutiny that comes with monetisation (and/or a readership). If my actions at work were under the same level of public interest I would be a quivering wreck, rocking back and forth in my ergonomic office chair.

Instead, dear reader, you get to read this guff with no means of redress whatsoever.

As ever, comments welcome below the line.