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.

Sporting Polygamists

We should have seen this coming

We should have seen it coming

We’ve recently witnessed Freddie Flintoff make his first bold step into the boxing ring, defeating Richard Dawson (not the off-spinner) on points. Ball Control confesses that the whole build-up to this event passed us by; the post-bout reports thus came as a bit of a shock.

The surprise was amplified by the caricature of Freddie that had been readily subscribed to; that of an inherently undisciplined very-ex-cricketer who had never shown the inclination to train hard for success, preferring instead to rely on God-given ability (or other shortcuts to fame – i.e. celebrity reality TV). These are traits that won’t get you very far in the brutal, pure sport of boxing, where chinks in the armoury are ruthlessly exposed. Though perhaps Dawson was not equipped to do that. Still, it’s more common for retired cricketers to try and eradicate a golf hook rather than hone their right hook.

It is not, however, uncommon for any generic sportsperson to cross codes, for there has been, and continues to be, many instances of this. Including in the world of boxing. Contemporaneously, Wallabies fly-half Quade Cooper has announced his planned professional boxing debut, scheduled to appear on the undercard of his friend and fellow rugby union player Sonny Bill Williams’ next fight. Sonny Bill, indeed, has three sporting mistresses; having previously forged a professional career in rugby league too.

The testosterone-powered world of Australian winter football codes is notoriously incestuous. For instance, as of next season, Israel Falou will become a professional rugby union player, having turned his back firstly on league and, most recently, Australian Rules football.

But while boxing and rugby are incredibly physical endeavours, they hardly suggest themselves as requiring similar skill-sets in the same way as do the oval ball sports. The same is even more true of boxing vis-à-vis the genteel sport of cricket, regardless of their shared dependency upon hand-eye coordination and (for bowlers) explosive strength.

Does Yuvraj still look cool when you find out he is a former national roller skating champion?

Does Yuvraj still seem so cool when you find out he is a former national roller skating champion?

BC’s first awareness of an ‘athlete’ making a foray in a new sport was the legendary ex-Spurs striker Clive Allen, who made the ill-judged step into Gridiron as a placekicker with the London Monarchs. The novelty value of this move was compounded by the bizarre razzmatazz which accompanied the doomed attempt to embed a European competition for the most American of sports. Allen was not alone in swapping an Anglo form of football for the American version, the legendary former rugby full back Gavin Hastings played for the Scottish Claymores in 1996, with comical results – missing 4 of his 27 extra point attempts, and failing with his solitary field goal attempt.

Regardless (or perhaps because) of the litany of failed crossovers in sport – see Michael Jordan – Ball Control greatly admires those that try. Where admiration crosses over into concern is in cases where the sportsperson appears to be motivated by an attempt to prolong their time in the spotlight, rather than in pursuing a new sport out of a competitive thirst for the challenge. To this bracket can be added retired sportspeople who return to their sport when they are clearly past it, i.e. Michael Schumacher, Ricky Hatton and, er, Michael Jordan.

Flintoff’s motives remain unclear but it is hoped that now he has proven his all-round sporting ability – and amply demonstrated that should he and Ricky Ponting disagree over a mulligan on the 18th hole then he would comprehensively win the ensuing fist fight – his boxing gloves will be hung up beside his cricket spikes.

The Ryder Cup by numbers (and silly names)

USA
Player Nickname Age Ranking Caps Ryder Cup points World Match Play titles (1/2 point for Runners-up)
Eldrick Tont Woods Tiger 35 2 6 20 4
Gerry Lester Watson, Jr Bubba 33 7 1 2.5 0
Jason Dufner Duff Man 35 9 0 0 0
Keegan Bradley Keegs 26 14 0 0 0
Webb Simpson Ty 27 8 0 0 0
Zachary Johnson Zach 36 17 1 4.5 0
Matt Kuchar Kuch 34 15 1 1.5 0
Phil Mickelson Lefty 42 16 8 19.5 0
Steve Stricker Mr. September 45 12 2 4.5 1
Brandt Snedeker The Golden Brandt 31 10 0 0 0
James Furyk Jim 42 23 7 15.5 0
Dustin Johnson The Cheetah 28 13 1 2.5 0
TOTALS 414 146 27 70.5 5
Europe
Player Nickname Age Ranking Caps Ryder Cup points World Match Play titles (1/2 point for Runners-up)
Rory McIlroy Rors 23 1 1 1.5 0.5
Justin Rose Justin 32 5 1 3.5 0.5
Graeme McDowell G-Mac 33 18 2 5 0.5
Paul Lawrie Chippy 43 28 1 3.5 1
Francesco Molinari Cicco 29 31 1 1 0
Luke Donald Cool Hand 34 3 3 9 0
Lee Westwood Westy 39 4 7 21.5 1.5
Sergio García El Niño 32 19 5 17 0.5
Peter Hanson Pete 34 25 1 1 0
Martin Kaymer The Germanator 27 32 1 2.5 0.5
Nicolas Colsaerts Belgian Bomber 29 35 0 0 1
Ian Poulter No. 2 36 26 2 6 2
TOTALS 391 227 25 71.5 8