July 31st, 2009
04:23 PM ET

Manchester City must be taken seriously

The signing of Arsenal defender Kolo Toure, with the prospect of at least one more top center-half being signed to partner him, marks Manchester City down as genuine English Premier League title contenders for the forthcoming season.

City appear to have been signing up every available world class striker this summer in an attempt to break the current monopoly held by Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal and there is no doubt that a forward line of Adebayor, Tevez. Santa Cruz, Robinho and Bellamy will trouble even the most resolute of defenses.

Toure's arrival marks City down as genuine title contenders.
Toure's arrival marks City down as genuine title contenders.

However, the capture of Toure is even more significant.

Firstly, the signing takes away a vital player from a potential title rival.  To some experts, Arsenal are the most vulnerable of the top four clubs. Selling Emmanuel Adebayor to City was seen as good business, but Toure - as the final member of the unbeaten 'Invincibles' Arsenal side that won the title in 2004 - was a key component of Arsenal's back four and his reaction speed, athleticism and ability to read dangerous situations are as good as any Premier League defender.

And secondly, Toure's arrival addresses what was an obvious deficiency in the City set-up, that no amount of attack-minded player could solve.

Defensively, City were woeful last season. Irishman Richard Dunne, a stalwart and fans' favorite in previous seasons, was exposed for his lack of pace more than ever before, while Micah Richards - who looked destined to be an England regular for many years to come under the national team leadership of Sven-Goran Eriksson - was completely overlooked by the Swede's replacement Fabio Capello, resulting  in a worrying loss of form amid rumors of petulant behavior and disagreements with City manager Mark Hughes.

While Hughes was busy assembling his dream team strike-force, the issue of City's leaking defence remained a major concern, but the moment Hughes made his intentions to snatch England captain John Terry from Chelsea known, City immediately became genuine title contenders.

Ultimately Terry opted to remain with Chelsea, but his head was undoubtedly turned, and with the seemingly bottomless pit of Abu Dhabi money ensuring the blue half of Manchester can offer whatever it takes to make their team title contendors, then a top quality partner for Toure will not be long  in coming.

Perhaps City won't win the title this season, but don't for one moment believe they cannot challenge. Hughes has signed proven champions. Tevez won the title at Manchester United, Toure at Arsenal, Santa Cruz with Bayern Munich in Germany. These are not players who are wet behind the ears, they have a winning mentality.

The rest of the Premier League should beware.

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Filed under:  Football
July 30th, 2009
10:04 AM ET

Stormy waters ahead for women's golf

When Ai Miyazato entered the press room ahead of the Women’s British Open at Royal Lythm and St. Annes there was a frenzy of activity from Japanese cameramen and journalists.

Stand-in LPGA commissioner Martha Evans has a tough job on her hands.
Stand-in LPGA commissioner Martha Evans has a tough job on her hands.

It was an exciting sight and was certainly inspired by her win at the Evian Masters the previous week.

But shortly after, when world number one Lorena Ochoa entered the room to give her story in the build up to the last major championship of the year, there was hardly anyone in the room.

I couldn’t believe that a player of such caliber could draw so little attention – there were only 10 or 12 journalists in the room and it was a press conference before a major championship! It lasted 10 minutes.

It is hard for me not to compare that to when Tiger Woods walks in the room, especially before a major championship, people are hanging from the rafters to make sure they don’t miss a moment of the press conference, which is an event in itself.

I thought that sadly the lack of attention to Ochoa was a reflection of the state of the women’s game and the general lack of interest from the press and public.

The LPGA has lost 7 tournaments since 2007, its last commissioner resigned a few weeks ago after a stint that came with plenty of controversy and sponsors are heading for the door.

Before Carolyn Bivens resigned as commissioner she tried to introduce a policy that all Asian players should learn to speak English before being allowed their LPGA player’s card.

The suggestion went down as more laughable than a duffer’s air swing in a pro am and given that Asian players have won 9 times on the LPGA tour this year perhaps the field should be learning to speak either Korean or Japanese if anything.

If it wasn’t for Asian players like Miyazato bringing something to the women’s game in the U.S. and helping with exposure in the Far East then it would be in a tragic state.

I spoke with stand-in LPGA commissioner Martha Evans before the British Open about the state of the LPGA. She put on a brave face saying that it was tough times for all sports when it came to attracting sponsorship.

Evans is a former Rear Admiral in the US Navy so she is used to sailing through stormy waters and at this moment she is the captain of a very leaky boat and I hope she has a few ideas in mind to stop it hitting rock bottom.

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Filed under:  Golf
July 28th, 2009
03:41 PM ET

Three years to go... much to be done

LONDON, England – It is hard to believe that all of the dirt, mud, and blocks of concrete at the "Olympic Park" will, in three years, be a fresh new space with gleaming buildings, green trees and grass fit to host the biggest carnival in World Sport. Are they really going to finish in time? Can they turn all of this into roadways and landscaping in time for 2012? It is a vast space, and it seems like there is just so much to do in such a short space of time. For the media invited to an open day, on the three-year anniversary before the start of the event, such questions of doubt would need some reassurance to not resurface in news reports over the coming days.

Dignitaries including London Mayor Boris Johnson and the chairman of the London 2012 Olympic Committee Seb Coe look at the stadium rising from the mud.
Dignitaries including London Mayor Boris Johnson and the chairman of the London 2012 Olympic Committee Seb Coe look at the stadium rising from the mud.

One shiny, gleaming promise that has already been delivered is the "Javelin" high-speed train which will take 25,000 visitors an hour from central London to the Olympic Park. Riding it is a treat - it is quick (225kph), modern, and clean - and the journey time of the 10km route was only seven minutes. It's door-to-door service from one brand new station to another.

Cranes and construction sounds welcome travelers who leave the train and head towards the Olympic Park - to the right are the unfinished, empty high-rise skeletons of the athletes' village, to the left random concrete pylons stick from the ground. Maybe it was the cold and rain that led to a pessimistic mindset but thoughts wandered again towards the mountainous task of meeting the Olympic deadline and whether tourists will have to pack winter clothes for a "summer" Games.

People measure progress in different ways on construction sites. Most of us see buildings popping out of the ground as a sign that things are moving along. But we don't think about all the preparation that's had to be done in the ground - the laying of electric cables, the dredging of rivers, the clean-up of waste and contamination - before they can even build those buildings.

In the final analysis the consensus was that progress was on track and within budget. The sun finally broke through by the end of the trip and the big white clouds seemed to carry away any doubts about whether this place will be ready by 2012. But then a thick drop of water fell on the top on my head from the unfinished stadium - a reminder that a lot more still needs to be done.

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Filed under:  Olympics
July 27th, 2009
07:40 PM ET

The Wembley whimper

I have seen quite a few sport stadiums and arenas in my lifetime but none that have inspired within me the awe of Wembley. The walk up "Olympic Way", the warm welcome of the Bobby Moore statue and the magnificence of the giant supporting arch - the "Home of Football" makes its visual mark before you have even stepped through its doors. This is why people come to Wembley, the place where sporting lives change and clubs make history on the hallowed turf.

So surely a preseason "Wembley Cup" - featuring European champions Barcelona, African club of the century Al Ahly and British big-hitters Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur - would be a tournament not to miss. I mean it is Wembley, the Mecca of football in England, how could the masses not respond?

Once inside, I was struck with a sea of bright red. From left to right, an ocean of empty seats, reaching from the ground to the heavens and all I could think of was just how many people were needed to fill this place? The simple answer is 90,000. It might not be the biggest, but as the 21st biggest stadium in the world it is still up there with the best. To understand just how big consider a little comparison: Rome's Colosseum had a capacity of 4,296, consequently; it would therefore take 21 gladiatorial events to match the attendance of one England home game. Large? Yes. But too big for Barcelona? Surely not.

Seeing the Spanish giants live for the first time since being crowned 2009 European and La Liga Champions, the expectation was for crowds to flock in their thousands to catch a glimpse of Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry. But to my astonishment the match was played in front of barely 20,000. Crowds increased to about 40,000 when Celtic and Tottenham hit the pitch, but still the place looked cavernous. So why lack of enthusiasm?

Maybe the reason could have been ticket prices, where a one-day pass would cost between $48 and $97 for an adult. The credit crunch is still an issue for many and with the ticket price, plus travel, food and merchandise; an expensive day could have proved a bank-breaker.

The other reason could be that because it was a Sunday, people would rather just stay at home and relax by watching the game on television before another hectic week at work begins. Whatever the excuse, one thing is for sure the Wembley experience, engraved in my mind until the end of my days, cannot be experienced from the couch and the marketing department's dream of a packed-to-the-rafters stadium did not materialize.

Consequently, Barcelona trounced Al Ahly and Celtic were victorious over Harry Redknapp's Tottenham Hotspur, in another chapter of the age-old conflict between the English and the Scots, in front of a disappointing crowd.

Despite the lack of numbers, the cheers from fans filled the air within the cauldron of the stadium. Celtic will go down in the history books as the 2009 winners, but the tournament may have to think of a re-brand; Wembley Cup might be better named Wembley "no show up." Just a thought.

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Filed under:  Football
July 23rd, 2009
04:19 PM ET

Mourinho the mute ...

Has Jose Mourinho lost his voice? I only ask because I’ve just returned from covering Inter Milan’s clash with Chelsea in the grandly named, "World Football Challenge" in Los Angeles, and the Inter Milan boss was so quiet he was nigh on mute!

Mourinho the mute.
Mourinho the mute.

It was particularly strange because during his time as Chelsea manager, the self-anointed “Special One” was a motor-mouthed media dream. Always good for a quote - whether berating officials, playing mind games with his rival managers, or simply announcing how great he was - Jose was a sound bite machine. What‘s more, while his bon mots were delivered with a smug arrogance that would‘ve prompted pistols at dawn in another era, there was often a tongue-in-cheek subtext to what he said, and we loved his artfulness. So what has happened?

It wasn’t just that the suddenly zip-lipped coach refused to say anything to any media outlet, it was the manner in which he brushed us all off. Flippant, dismissive, supercilious - pick your poison - he made the media feel as welcome swine flu.

Now excuse me for asking, but aren‘t pre-season overseas tours as much about promoting your club as honing your team for the campaign to come? Inter’s Managing Director, Ernesto Paolillo, said as much when he spoke with CNN, and it’s no secret that when the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, and AC Milan hit the road in the pre-season they’re selling a brand.

Indeed, AC Milan could not have been more accommodating in their dealings with the media in Los Angeles. The Rossoneri's PR department hand-delivering coach Leonardo and his superstar roster to cameras and fans alike with a smile. Of course, the club had its agenda, but it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement; so no harm, no foul.

Inter, on the other hand, preferred to be elusive and obstructive. And Mourinho, the man we all wanted to speak to most, was the main offender, issuing the lame excuse via his powerless PR man that he doesn't want to talk while the transfer window is still open. Why? The window's open but the subject doesn't have to be, just tell us it's off limits and discuss the myriad of other topics Nerrazzuri fans would like to know about.

Chelsea boss, Carlo Ancellotti, spoke to the media. Leonardo gave us an unprecedented one-on-one interview at Milan's hotel on MATCHDAY! But Jose kept schtum, creating media frustration and a disappointing impression of the reigning Italian champions, who, as relatively recent arrivals at the top of the European game, should surely have been shouting their wares from the rooftops.

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Filed under:  Football
July 17th, 2009
11:27 AM ET

Weather plays havoc for Open hopefuls

When the field of 156 players hit the links on Thursday for the Open Championship for the first round they might have thought they were on the coast of Florida.

Curtis drives from the first tee unaware of the nightmare that awaits.
Curtis drives from the first tee unaware of the nightmare that awaits.

Come Friday and they definitely know they are in the heartland of links golf in Scotland as the weather is combining with the course to ruin plenty of dreams of holding the Claret Jug come Sunday.

It’s blustery here but not too cold and the first 10 holes are proving a real nightmare for everyone as they head out straight into the breeze. We are going to see some erratic scoring today.

America's Ben Curtis is the best example so far of the course biting back. He was one shot off the lead yesterday on 5 under but, after an opening nine that came from the book of golf's worst nightmares with seven over par holes, today will post a 10 over 80 and may very well miss the cut.

On the other hand American Steve Marino managed a 2 under 68 after heading out early for a tournament total of 5 under and will comfortably take part over the final two days of the Open.

Not only will there be plenty of interest in how the field copes with the conditions but Tom Watson will have a huge following.

The 59-year-old will need all his experience today if he is going to manufacture anything like Thursday’s sparkling round of golf.
In all it should be a fantastic day of golf to watch.

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Filed under:  Golf
July 16th, 2009
04:53 PM ET

Every dog has its day at the Open ...

Younger players often pay many compliments to the elder statesmen of the game but I think Anthony Kim and Rory McIlroy have found the fluffiest way to honour two great players.

A three-day-old 'Labradoodle' for those unsure of their appearance.
A three-day-old 'Labradoodle' for those unsure of their appearance.

Both own Labradoodle dogs (a cross between a Labrador and a poodle) and during a recent round together they discovered something in common.

McIlroy named his dog Theo, after Ernie Els, the South African who’s full name is Theodore Ernest Els.

While Kim named his dog Norman in honor of the Shark who is Greg Norman, the great Australian two-time major champion.

Norman (the player not the dog) responded to news at the British Open Championship of being given “naming rights” to McIllroy’s dog with the following: “Does that mean when he gets mad at the dog he is actually mad at me?”

Let’s just hope both younger players don’t lose the Open to either elder opponent  in a play-off – or both animals might be called mongrels when they get home!

Now down to the business of the first round. Who would have thought that  the oldest player in the field and one who was involved in the most dramatic Open Championship duel in 1977 would be right up on the leaderboard on day one.

Tom Watson, who is 59-year-sold, yes that’s right 59! must have been on an adrenalin rush when he played on Thursday.

He was perhaps driven by that famous Duel in the Sun in ’77 with Jack Nicklaus that saw Watson come out on top by the slimmest of margins.

Five under 65 on a course that is vastly longer and the fairways much tighter than ’77 showed up the rest of the field during the early stages.

Whatever happens for the rest of the day it will be a talking point leading into Friday.

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Filed under:  Golf
July 15th, 2009
10:20 AM ET

Ponting ponders missed opportunity

The flaws of the England cricket team in Cardiff were obvious and too long to list on the short space provided here; but even Australia showed signs of weakness during the first Ashes Test.

Ponting ponders how victory escaped his side in the first Ashes Test against England in Cardiff.
Ponting ponders how victory escaped his side in the first Ashes Test against England in Cardiff.

Despite his impressive record as skipper, Aussie captain Ricky Ponting continues to attract criticism both at home and abroad. His nation's only Ashes series loss over the last two decades came under his stewardship, in 2005, and for many an indelible image of the defeat was how the Tasmanian lost his cool after being run out by a Pratt (surname of England's controversial stand-in fielder Gary).

There were echoes of that incident on the final day’s play in Cardiff when England’s 12th man, Bilal Shafayat, came on in successive overs in a thinly-veiled, time-wasting tactic to incur the ire of “Red-Mist Ricky."

It was hard not to be entertained watching the Australian captain’s face, a brief flicker of bemusement quickly changing to anger. He barked at the hapless Shafayat and complained to the umpires. No psychologist was needed to determine that on both occasions, in 2005 and 2009, the source of Ponting's frustration was not with his opponents, but came instead from within.

Four years ago, England’s consistent competitiveness surprised him. This time, he was frustrated by letting, what seemed a comprehensive victory, slip through his fingers. No doubt Australia’s captain misses the pace bowling of Glenn McGrath and creative spin of Shane Warne, but critics argue without the former greats to rely on Ponting proves tactically brittle. His current bowling attack showed some teeth in the first Test but the legendary bite of Warne and McGrath remains a big loss.

Nonetheless, when you compare the contribution of Ponting with Andrew Strauss, in Cardiff, Australia’s captain fared far better than England’s. Strauss’s batting looked solid but he failed to convert his form into a large total in either innings. He also looked helpless as Australia racked up the runs in their record-breaking first innings.

Tactically, Ponting may have his detractors but it’s impossible to argue that his individual score of 150 was anything other than a fantastic tone-setter for all of his batsmen. History is reserving judgment on Ponting the captain, for now, but Ponting the batsman is already one of the sport’s best ever.

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Filed under:  Cricket
July 14th, 2009
05:56 PM ET

Free-food bonanza at Tour de France

I’m beginning to think that the croissant I had for breakfast was a complete waste of time, such is the amount of free food and drink being offered to me by the Tour de France organizers.

A mini-breakfast of bacon and sausage, just one of the many free food options in the Tour de France village.
A mini-breakfast of bacon and sausage, just one of the many free food options in the Tour de France village.

Luckily enough, I have the correct ‘accreditation’ to enter the Tour village, prior to the 10th stage from Limoges to Issoudun and, despite the drizzly conditions, I am certainly not alone.

It is easy to see why they call it the village. I haven’t located a bed yet, but there is a sufficient amount of food, drink, toilet facilities and entertainment, to provide me with everything I need should I, and the thousands of other privileged enough to have the ‘golden ticket’, get locked in here for the next month.

While the rank and file are being entertained by all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures who form part of the Tour de France cavalcade, I begin my feast-fest by tucking into a couple of mini-pastries.

I decline the offer of some coffee and opt out of the wine-tasting, which seems surprisingly popular considering it is only 10:30am. I am handed the French sports newspaper L’Equipe. It’s a great read, for those who speak French, but as my vocabulary is limited to ‘bonjour’, I fear it is wasted on me.

A man is offering me fruit by the handful. I accept an orange and a little green thing which I think is a sort of plum, very nice it is too, before gratefully scooping up some sweets courtesy of our friends at Haribo.

Bizarrely, I can’t find any water so I decide to partake in an apricot ice drink, which I soon realize is a huge error as my brain freezes up for a good 20 seconds.

There is a crowd gathering around a particular tent, where I notice the genial host/chef is offering up a mini fry-up of bacon and sausages. Imagine, if you will, having to create a breakfast for a doll’s house...then this was it. Bacon was a bit on the fatty side, but that’s just me being ungrateful for no reason.

Before I get stuck into the mini-pasta dishes, I hear a commotion. The riders are beginning to arrive and I’ve got to start work. With regret I leave the much-fancied diet of durum wheat to attend to business, with much food for cycling-based thought.

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Filed under:  Cycling
July 9th, 2009
02:17 PM ET

Strikes overshadow South Africa progress

The strikes that have seen around 70,000 workers down tools at the 2010 World Cup stadium construction sites in South Africa have made news around the world.

With Bhekani Ngcobo, the negotiator for the body that represents many of the disgruntled labor force – the National Union of Miners (NUM) – suggesting that unless pay is increased the unrest could enter the "Guinness Book of Records" as the longest strike ever, storm clouds are seemingly gathering.

Workers strike in front of the unfinished Soccer City stadium in Soweto.
Workers strike in front of the unfinished Soccer City stadium in Soweto.

Of course, concerns regarding Africa's ability to host an international tournament of the size and scope of the World Cup have always been evident, ever since the "Rainbow Nation" were announced as hosts of the 19th edition back in 2004.

And the regular news of strife between workers and organizers plays well into an ongoing theme with many media outlets of trials and tribulations holding sway over triumph in the build-up to kick off. Do you agree? Add your comment below.

However, though the discontented workers could throw a major spanner in the building works, the recent news is in danger of overshadowing a growing optimism and confidence in a country that will invite the world's football fans to its shores come June 2010.

The recent Confederations Cup was deemed a success by Sepp Blatter, the president of world football's governing body FIFA, who gave the event a 7.5 out of 10 in terms of fulfilling the expectations laid down prior to the event. Blatter said in a press conference at the end of the tournament that his faith in awarding the finals to South Africa had been "more than justified."

It seems this feeling was reflected on the ground too. Editor of Sowetan Soccer magazine, Mo Allie, told CNN: "FIFA gave us a good mark because they were very happy with the turnout – and on average it worked out that 35,000 attended each game which was a better figure than when the event was held in Germany.

"Tickets were bought up by big sponsors and many of the matches finished late – but despite this people realized there was fantastic action at the ground if they went down to watch, and fans turned up.

"Football has always been a prominent sport in South Africa, especially with the big teams like Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates – but the great thing with the Confederations Cup was the mix of the crowds that attended, all ages and races, which is not something that is always found in other sports.

"The biggest change has been with the attitude towards the national team. Prior to the Confederations Cup there was widespread skepticism about how they would perform, but good performances against New Zealand, Spain and Brazil turned heads – they gave a good account of themselves and many people now believe Bafana Bafana have a fighting chance of getting past the group stages come the finals," Allie added.

"Transport and accommodation are still big logistical factors that need to be sorted. There is a park and ride system that did not work as well as it might, some drivers didn't know the way, buses weren't always on time. There were also many roadworks around the stadiums which led to a lot of delays, but in a way it was really good to have the Confederations Cup a year before the World Cup because it highlighted what shortcomings remain."

Such sentiments were echoed by the chief executive of the local organizing committee Danny Jordaan. Though it would be bizarre for a man in such a position to be anything other than optimistic, it is hard to argue that South Africa has successfully staged some major sporting events in recent months.

"In terms of scale and complexity, the World Cup is very different to the Confederations Cup and we are therefore already well advanced in planning for the extra demands. However, the success of the Confederations Cup is confirmation that we as a country can host major events. Look at the British Lions rugby tour and the Indian Premier League cricket tournament which we hosted successfully, and now also the FIFA Confederations Cup. It's a good boost for our country," Jordaan told a post-tournament press conference.

Undoubtedly, there are many challenges to be met before the World Cup party can start in earnest, but South Africa could yet prove many critics wrong.

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Filed under:  Football
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