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?

Young people, spoiling our fun

RIP

RIP

Could Sevens be to rugby what T20 is to cricket? The parallels are clear: a faster-paced, quick-scoring version of the longer format designed to appeal to the short attention spans of Gen’ Y-ers.

But while T20 has helped to reinvigorate the interest of cricket amongst established playing nations, rugby sevens (which has been around for yonks) has recently expanded into new territories. One simple explanation for this is that it will debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics (after its inclusion in the last four Commonwealth Games).

A glance at the current Sevens World Series Standings, updated after Fiji’s recent win in the Hong Kong tournament, shows that Kenya are fifth and Portugal are on an upward curve in 13th. The top ten isn’t that different to what you might expect from the full rugby union world rankings – the All Blacks are streets ahead at the top, and the traditional rugby powers are in the top 10 (except Australia in eleventh) – but, the USA and Canada are ploughing more resources into the game, and even El Salvador and Guatemala lobbying for inclusion in the World Series.

To some, the opening question will carry the malign implication that sevens could be detrimental to the 15-a-side game, in the same way as T20 is often accused of subjugating Test cricket. They will remember the promises of T20 bringing a new and vibrant audience to all forms of cricket and grumble that, in actuality, the new fans have taken over the joint, with administrators and advertisers have pandered to them at the expense of ‘traditional’ fans.

It’s hard to see an IPL-style league developing in, say, Australia or the USA; poaching the best 15(or 13)-a-side rugby talent for months of the year. Consider though that the cross-code (league and union – and boxing!) superstar Sonny Bill Williams has expressed an interest in competing at the Rio Olympics. If money were to pour into the game then players already wary of the physical tolls league and union have on their bodies could switch sides, at least for portions of the season.

In recent years cricket traditionalists have bemoaned the advent of T20 specialists – pejoratively titled ‘guns for hire’, as if the likes of Lasith Malinga are mercenaries out to destroy Test cricket. In rugby, the sevens players are almost exclusively just that: players of sevens rugby only. The skills between sevens and fifteens [sic] are clearly largely transferable, so long as you are a fleet-of-foot back. The rugby versions of cricketing plodders like Ed Cowan and Jonathan Trott would be the lumbering forwards. Would they too become a dying breed as their unique skillsets are deemed obsolete in a modern rugby culture?

 

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.

G’day ADP

Don’t pack your thermals

One of the biggest transfer moves from the past week was Alessandro Del Piero eschewing the advances of Southampton and signing for Sydney FC. As one who lives in Sydney but has previously had the pleasure of calling Southampton home, may I be among the first to congratulate Il Pinturicch​io on making this difficult choice over where to continue his career. I’d like to reassure Alessandro that should he wish to find a late-night kebab kiosk and hook up with an Aussie soap star then he will be well serviced in this beautiful harbour city. In hindsight, Matt Le Tissier must regret never plying his trade in the A-League.

The big imports to the Australian domestic league last year were natives: Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton. Neither captured the public imagination on anything like the level hoped for. Kewell has since left Melbourne Victory and is available as a free agent. Del Piero is a different footballing creature altogether: exotic, decorated and world-class.

There’s a strange tendency down here to lump fans of the various football codes – soccer, Aussie Rules, rugby union and league – together, while also pushing the line that following any of these codes is a mutually exclusive arrangement. It thus flows that you are open to be ‘poached’ by one of the others. Rugby league and Aussie rules, in particular, seem to be locked in an unedifying ruck for each other’s most hardcore adherents. From my limited experience it seems highly unlikely that if you’ve grown up in the western suburbs of Sydney you are going to simply put to one side all your cultural inclinations towards league. It is entirely possible though that those who live and breathe Parramatta Eels can quite easily pick up a remote and tune in to watch the GWS Giants. But building up loyal, die-hard fan bases are long-term projects at best.

That soccer sees itself in competition with the established codes is even more bizarre. For one thing it has a free run at the summer months while the rugbies and AFL are concentrating on gym work and tan-topping.

Australians are very savvy sport fans. The multi-layered Tour de France was closely followed here at a time when the cycling explosion in Britain was a mere twinkle in Lance Armstrong’s needle. They understand that ‘soccer’ is the ‘world’s game’ and don’t need a 37 year old Italian superstar to saunter around the Allianz Stadium to underline the point. On past form they will also cynically view this signing as a sad bid for attention. Worse, many will see it as a desperate gimmick.

While David Beckham has raised the profile of the MLS, both in the US and abroad, that profile is most associated with being a retirement backwater for players no longer able to perform in the European top-flights. Thus the English Premier League, despite its oft-challenging kick-off times, will continue to be by far the most watched soccer on TV in the States and Australia.

With all that said, I am excited about seeing a true legend of the game in the flesh. Del Piero spent his whole career at Juve and, like Raul’s move to Schalke a couple of years ago, just seeing him in a different club shirt will be a strange experience. There’s also the curiosity in seeing how his still world class technique compares to teammates such as Krunoslav Lovrek and Terry McFlynn.

If Football Australia is serious about expanding the reach of the A-League they could do a lot worse than to take the $4m over two seasons for Del Piero and use it to subsidise making at least some of the A-League’s games available on free-to-air TV.

State of Origin, to an outsider

For at least four weeks now the two major NSW papers – the Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph – have seemingly been in competition for the most column inches printed on the upcoming three-game State of Origin series.  There is no hint of neutrality as they also go head-to-head in the contest for most fervent support of the Blues.  After six successive series losses to the Maroons of Queensland, the desperation for NSW success is giving over to intense media scrutiny of every minor facet of the teams.  As a Pom who arrived in Sydney soon after the 2010 series, the obsession with rugby league in these parts still bewilders.

In England, rugby league is the sole preserve of purists residing in a few towns and cities either side of the Pennines.  Coming from the south coast, I almost never had any exposure to the game, bar the odd Challenge Cup game on Grandstand and the often one-sided international Tests between GB/England and Australia.  It always seemed to me to be the ugly cousin of the two rugby codes, even in the days when union was an amateur game.  Being down under, I have been more intrigued about the completely alien Aussie Rules footy code.

The 2011 NRL season opened my eyes a bit, but not totally, to the merits of league.  I adopted the St. George-Illawarra Dragons towards the end of their 2010 comp-winning season.  This was not glory-hunting, but a happy coincidence as my father-in-law to be was born in Rockdale and was a St. George die-hard.  I had never been in a position of supporting a title-winning team in any sport before and found the whole experience rather eerie – but that’s another story.  Fortunately, the Dragons ‘did a Spurs’ and sank back to the middle of the pack in 2011.  However, I was only able to catch one SoO game, and that was on a small screen at the end of a crowded pub.  This year, I plan on intently watching the lot.

It’s accepted wisdom that Origin is the pinnacle of the sport.  Where titans come to clash and speed, skill and bravery are at their most acute.  Well, that’s what I’ve been taught by the overzealous media coverage I’ve been subjected to.  The coverage is reminiscent of English tabloids working themselves into a lather before a major football championship.  Sport inspires passion and it’s exciting to be exposed to it in a different culture.

The first game is tonight.  I have the house to myself and a six-pack to devour.  For game two I shall be going to the ANZ stadium, on my birthday, and seeing up close what it all means to the Blues supporters.  Hopefully, this game will clinch the series for NSW.  With the likes of Thurston, Slater, Cronk, Inglis, Thaiday and Cameron Smith in the Queensland line-up, I have my doubts.

Come on you Blues.