November 30th, 2009
05:29 PM ET

I'm not on Ireland's side this time

The Republic of Ireland’s request for an extra berth in next year’s World Cup finals is perfectly understandable given FIFA's harsh ruling on their demand for a play-off replay with France, but I can’t say I’m in favor of it succeeding.

Thierry Henry and the offending handball.
Thierry Henry and the offending handball.

Yes, I know that FIFA president Sepp Blatter and his cohorts have said they will give it due consideration, along with Costa Rica’s bid for inclusion in the wake of a dubious goal by Uruguay in their play-off, but I think to expand the finals from 32 teams to 34 would be bad for the tournament.

When I first started watching the World Cup it had only 16 teams; the Finals lasted barely three weeks; and being part of that elite group carried massive prestige because the number of finalists was so small.

The limited entry also allowed us, as fans, to get to know the players, and personalities, and the character of each team, so that Pak Doo Ik of North Korea carried as big a wow factor as a more familiar name like Bobby Charlton or Pele.

For three weeks we were cocooned in a football dome full of high intensity and a special kind of magic that came from the real or imagined spectacle of seeing the best tackle the best.

Contrast that with 2010, when 32 nations will take part in an amorphous tournament lasting just over a month, featuring several teams that would not have made it had they been located in a stronger geographic qualifying region, and involving so many players and personalities that it will be a full-time job keeping track of who’s who and what this match means to that.

Not that I’m deriding the tournament. It’s still the greatest show on Earth for football fans like myself, but it has become a victim of its own success.

It’s now too big in my opinion, with the result that some of the passion, intensity, and cache of being involved as a player, coach, and fan has been diluted.

And now they’re apparently considering extending the tournament to 34 teams? Lunacy! That would be a logistical nightmare for the organizers; unfair to the 31 teams (aside from France) who got there legitimately; and supremely unjust to the unfortunate nations drawn in the two groups of five from which only two would advance to the second phase.

And not only that, like the summer Olympics and the European Champions League the aura of the competition would be further diminished for the fans, because, for me, you can have too much of a good thing.

So, sorry Republic of Ireland, I was fully behind your quest for a replay of the game with France, but I can’t back this one, for the simple reason that sometimes less is more.    

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Filed under:  Football
November 30th, 2009
11:11 AM ET

Woods is only human

The news that Tiger Woods crashed his car has caused shock around the world - the act seemingly so inconceivable for a man who has historically demonstrated such power of control as a driver. But surely it is unfair to expect perfection both on and off the golf course?

The intrigue generated by a figure, so famed for inch-perfect precision of movement, driving an SUV into a fire hydrant and then a tree has proved a powerful draw to global consumers of news; initially through fear that an iconic figure of our times had been seriously hurt, then through curiosity that the machine-like forger of fortune had revealed himself as a human capable of mistake after all.

Woods is a living legend whose track record at times defies belief. Since turning professional in 1996, the Floridian has dominated his sport so comprehensively that his legend has transcended the discipline of fairways and greens to make him one of the most famous men on the planet.

It's not just his sporting achievements that set him apart - at just 33-years-old his record of 14 Major-wins leaves him just four short of the all-time record set by Jack Nicklaus - it is also the manner of his victories and the public persona that has been built around such success.

So appealing is his image to corporate association that he has become the biggest-earning sportsman on the planet, bringing in an annual estimated income of $110 million.

There are fairy-tales and there's the Tiger tale, and up to the point Woods drove his vehicle from the road, the latter modern-day fable had proved more compelling. So the illusion of perfection has been shattered - but is this a bad thing, and does it reduce the power of Woods' story? Well, no.

The image of Woods, like any, is a projection and not a reality; a persona kept clean and free of controversy to maximize the revenue-generating potential of a legendary sporting talent. In many ways, you can't see the Woods for the artificial trees.

So the contrived image has been cracked, but what human - especially one under such pressure to deliver - could have upheld the perfect picture for as long? And is it a surprise that something different lies underneath?

Whatever the cause behind the crash, Woods has at last shown he's a mere mortal who, though blessed with supreme talent, has personal ups-and-downs like the rest of us.

The story may have developments yet but the remarkable record of Tiger's accomplishments will go down in history regardless of his less-than-impressive track-record with Thanksgiving transportation.

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Filed under:  Golf
November 26th, 2009
10:55 PM ET

Is Rafael Nadal a spent force?

Rafa Nadal's performances at the ATP World Tour Finals in London have raised serious question marks about the Spaniard's well-being.

Can Rafael Nadal ever return to his former heights again?
Can Rafael Nadal ever return to his former heights again?

Nadal began 2009 in superb style, beating Roger Federer to win the Australian Open title, taking him one tournament away from a clean sweep of slams.

His displays over the last year had taken the Spaniard to number one in the world rankings and all the locker-room mummerings were about Federer's possible demise and Nadal's increasing superiority.

Yet, the last seven months have seen a complete turnaround in the fortunes of the Majorcan.

A stunning defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling saw Nadal's seemingly invincible reign as French Open champion come to a crashing end - leaving the way open for Federer to snatch the one title that had always eluded him and take back the No.1 ranking in the process.

How had Nadal gone from this unbeatable powerhouse, to looking vulnerable, in the blink of an eye?

Well the answer soon became appearent when it was revealed Nadal was suffering from a crippling knee injury that would mean he could not defend his Wimbledon title, an absence that Federer took advantage of to take back his SW19 title in dramatic fashion.

With injuries so commonplace in modern tennis, I reckon it takes a really bad one to stop somebody competing in the most prestigious tournament in the world - especially when they are the defending champion.

And since his return to the ATP Tour, Nadal has looked a pale shadow of his former self. To be beaten in straight sets by both Soderling and Nikolay Davydenko in London is not the form of a man ranked second in the world.

Nadal prides himself on his upper body strength. His power and physique is something to behold and made him the player that took the tennis world by storm.

But while your upper body can be strengthened permanently, the knee cannot. Could it be that years of pumping iron and making his upper body stronger have placed too much strain on Nadal's lower body?

Could his knees be showing the wear and tear of coming into the sport so early and generating the immense power that is needed for those stunning clay-court ground-strokes.

On faster surfaces, Nadal is now just another player. If he does not perform to his previous imperious clay-court best, following the winter break, maybe he never will.

The acid test will be Roland Garros 2010.

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Filed under:  Tennis
November 26th, 2009
11:56 AM ET

Liverpool must be careful in rebuilding process

Firstly, let's face it, managers have been fired for less, and I think in a perfect world Liverpool would get rid of Benitez, because his team is not achieving on the pitch and he seems unable to attract the kind of players, Fernando Torres aside, that can change the situation.

Selling Fernando Torres to fund reinforcements will hurt Liverpool more than help.
Selling Fernando Torres to fund reinforcements will hurt Liverpool more than help.

But I don't think Liverpool will get rid of him in a hurry because they cannot afford the compensation, and there is not a ready replacement available. Jose Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal are only in the frame because they're failing almost as badly as Rafa in the Champions League, so the Reds may think better the devil they know.

But, rebuilding of sorts is necessary, and this is the time to do it because their only real distraction will come in the battle to make the top-four in the English Premier League to qualify for next year's Champions League.

As much as players pay lip-service to the F.A Cup and Europa League those competitions are peripheral to the real business, at least for a club like Liverpool that believes it should challenge for the top honors. So now would be the perfect time to build for the future.

I'm not sure that selling Torres would be a good idea, even if he did raise $120 million. Spending just that much on a handful of players would only get the kind of mediocre players Liverpool have, with the exception of Torres himself, been buying for the last few years, and that clearly isn't good enough.

Therefore, whether Benitez stays or someone else comes in, he'll still have the same old problem - insufficient money and a general lack of quality players. So selling Torres or even Gerard would be cutting off your nose to spite your face. Better to accept the season as a bust, and look to the next two transfer windows for some bargains, like Arsene Wenger does at Arsenal.

The Gunners have long since accepted that they are NOT Chelsea or Manchester City in terms of finances, and that they are NOT Manchester United in terms of prestige. As a result they can't easily acquire the big-name players. But what they have done is become canny and astute in the players they do buy and in the way they deploy them, which is something Benitez is not. Like I said, it's time for Liverpool to reassess, with or without Rafa.

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Filed under:  Football
November 25th, 2009
09:22 AM ET

Has Benitez reached the end of the road?

For Liverpool, the road has come to a dead end. It may have had its twists and turns, its ups and downs, but after results conspired to dump the five-time European champions from the Champions League, there is nowhere else to go. Out of European competition and out of the English Premier League title race, the Reds are faced with yet another season when they will win no silverware of note.

Has Benitez reached the end of his useful life with Liverpool?
Has Benitez reached the end of his useful life with Liverpool?

You can try to point the finger at the owners of the club or at some of the players, but in my opinion the man to blame is Rafa Benitez. He's had five years to get it right, and although last season he came close to ending Liverpool's title drought, in the end he came up short. A combination of bad buys and questionable tactical choices means he should start thinking about leaving Anfield.

Liverpool should have qualified for the knock-out stages of the Champions League. They were placed in a group that was perfectly manageable. Lyon is a good side, but Fiorentina is average at best (by Champions League standards) and Debrecen still has a long way to go before being able to battle with the best. They should have finished in the top two. But they didn't and now one is left to wonder what they have left.

Where to go from here? Thirteen points behind Chelsea in the domestic league, their title hopes are slim at best. So does this squad have enough quality to ensure a bright future? Hardly... the only promising player they have is David N'Gog and he is not someone to build a team around. If you ask me, they have to start from scratch. New manager, new players and new owners.

Steven Gerrard is still strong enough to be a central figure, but they may have to sell Fernando Torres to fund the spending spree they need to become a world class side once again. Let Fernando go for around $120 million and get a handful of players who will make a difference.

Who would be the ideal man to take over? If you ask me, they should look no further than Jose Mourinho. He loves England and England loves him. He has become an unwanted man in Italy with the press growing tired of his antics, and Inter would also allow him to leave considering he will most probably not win the Champions League this season.

Rafa out, Jose in. Torres out, new blood in. Then there may be a bright future at Anfield... because right now, there is nowhere to go.

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Filed under:  Football
November 23rd, 2009
09:54 AM ET

Intimidating Westwood wins with mind power

Lee Westwood is almost in the veteran stage of his career, having been on tour for 16 years and experienced the game at all levels.

Westwood celebrates with suitable body language after a tour-de-force of intimidation at the Dubai Championship.
Westwood celebrates with suitable body language after a tour-de-force of intimidation at the Dubai Championship.

His round on Sunday to win the Dubai World Championship was one of the best I have ever seen from a professional and his persona all week spoke volumes of where his game is right now.

He has learnt so much over the roller coaster years. One of the keys to success that he has unlocked and so many find hard to grip is the ability to intimidate. Ali, Jordan and Schumacher come to mind as great examples.

If you are at the peak of your game, stand tall, impress on others your advantage and watch as the opposition crumble into submission.

Tiger is the finest example on the planet at the moment and he uses his presence in every tournament. Simply put, Tiger’s expressions say something like this: “I’m the best. You want me come get me if you think you are good enough.”

It doesn’t make the whole field go weak at the knees but some do, and that is a handy advantage to have before you even make to the first tee.

That’s exactly how Westwood carried himself this week and he knew it was working when Race to Dubai leader at the time Rory McIllroy finished his opening round with Westwood and declared: “I couldn’t wait to get away from him.”

It referred to just how well Westwood was playing but it was a compliment that showed McIllroy’s hand.

“He should never has said that and he will learn from it. You never give away that fear factor,” Westwood said.

It meant that Westwood’s intimidatory approach was working and he had the measure of his 20-year-old stable mate after day one when McIlroy was the man to catch.

The Englishman says McIllroy has some weaknesses in his game and I think he was not really referring entirely to his ability on course but some things he needs to learn when speaking publicly and the mind games seasoned pros play with the media at their disposal. He would do well to learn from Tiger the master.

It was a good lesson for the young Northern Irishman before he heads to the lions den that is the US PGA Tour next year and Westwood’s brutal assessment was aimed to help McIllroy not humiliate him.

Westwood just needs to bottle his approach over the holiday period and unload it next April at the Masters in Augusta. He may struggle to intimidate Tiger, in fact no one can, but the 36-year-old at least has an extra club in his bag that the rest of the field won’t have – it’s called intimidation.

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Filed under:  Golf
November 22nd, 2009
08:15 PM ET

Beckham looks for trio of titles

How many players would be able to say they’ve won football league titles in 3 different countries?

David Beckham celebrates with LA Galaxy team-mate Landon Donovan.
David Beckham celebrates with LA Galaxy team-mate Landon Donovan.

After taking trophies in England and Spain, that’s the task of David Beckham come Sunday, when the Los Angeles Galaxy face Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup Final.

It’s on ESPN at 830 pm ET here in the United States – and get this – it’s also on live at 1.30 am local in London – on the UK version of ESPN. Anyone staying up to support your native son? In fact, our friends at Major League Soccer tell us the match is being broadcast in 122 countries around the globe.  

I’m not going to carry on here about the Beckham Experiment, the troubles with Landon Donovan and the Galaxy fans.

With the boos ringing loud, Beckham came back to a good Galaxy team, and made them better.  Before Becks – six wins, 3 draws, 2 losses. With Becks – six wins, 3 draws, 2 losses, first place in the Western Conference, surviving the knockout round playoffs for a berth in US soccer’s biggest match.

So we can validate what Becks means to the LA Galaxy. But has he raised the profile of US Soccer?  I think so, but I’m too close to it, and I need your help. Please sound off below.

Here’s what we know: Major League Soccer has set a new record for attendance during these 2009 Playoffs matches. One of the highest TV ratings ever for Major League Soccer was last Friday’s Galaxy v Dynamo match from Los Angeles, even though it kicked off at 1130 pm East Coast time. When the Galaxy hosted Barcelona this summer, the crowd was the biggest at any soccer match globally since the 1994 World Cup.

My own barometer? An increasing amount of people from all walks of life here in the CNN Center were getting excited about “World Cup Wednesday” and dialing us to tell where they might be able to keep an eye on the matches while at work. I can feel the increased interest in soccer in my immediate proximity. Can I pin it all on Beckham? No, but my feeling is that his presence has only helped grow the sport here, not hurt it.

Let’s look at what Sunday’s MLS Cup Final will be up against on American TV.  Oh no, the NFL! American football, especially the National Football League, is a ratings monster, all but devouring everything in its path. And it’s Philadelphia at Chicago (at 8pm ET), two major markets.  Can Beckham make a dent? I hope so.

Throw-ins:

Has anyone played more football in 2009 than David Beckham? 18 for Milan, about to be 17 for the Galaxy, and seven for England.

Any irony, maybe irony isn’t the right word – to the fact the Galaxy are facing “REAL” Salt Lake, a name based on Beckham’s former team in Spain?

The match will be played on an artificial pitch in at Seattle’s Quest Stadium, the first MLS Cup final to not be contested on real grass. (Real Salt Lake has never won away from home on an artificial pitch in 11 tries.)

Prediction: Galaxy 3, Real Salt Lake 1

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Filed under:  Football
November 22nd, 2009
07:36 PM ET

Now the dust has settled FIFA must act

When all the dust has settled on Le Handball debate, what will we have learned from this debacle? Well, first and foremost it’s been confirmed that FIFA is unwilling to see their rules as an organic set of conventions.

Henry may have apologized but Ireland will not be going to the World Cup finals.
Henry may have apologized but Ireland will not be going to the World Cup finals.

The decision not to replay the France/Ireland play-off was, of course, widely anticipated, as FIFA is a bureaucratic body renowned for following the letter of its laws even if that seemingly goes against their ethos of 'fair play.'

To order a re-match would have been a watershed moment in world football, and FIFA does not willingly change the status quo.

A human reaction to the public clamor for a replay would have been totally out of character, and I doubt there’s one person in football who expected the sport’s governing body to right the injustice that so many around the world witnessed.

So, what else have we learned? Well, we now know that Thierry Henry, for all his talents, is not the icon he was considered when he played for Arsenal.

Not because he committed the handball, but because he celebrated the goal by Gallas so fervently without a hint of guilt, even though he knew it wasn’t legitimate.

To admit to handling the ball after the fact and then absolve himself of blame by putting the responsibility on the ref, smacks of a man without honor.

And what of the ref? Well, surprisingly I can sympathize with Martin Hansson and his assistants.

In the dying moments of a tense battle they blew the vital call. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I genuinely believe it was an honest error. Granted, as the Swedish press wrote, it’s probably “the worst refereeing mistake in 20 years”, but I feel sure he didn’t make it with bad intention.

However, what his howler demonstrates once and for all is that football needs a safety net, or possibly two.

The experiment with 5 officials at the Under-17 World Cup and in the Europa League must surely be adopted throughout the game. Everything else in football is decided by large committees, why not the thing that matters most - what happens on the pitch.

I also think the use of instant video replays is now essential. Other sports, like rugby, tennis, and American football utilize technology. FIFA and every other governing body in the game has embraced television for financial gain, so why not use the cameras to help preserve the sport’s integrity?

Of course, all this will not put Ireland on the plane to South Africa next summer. But like the Bosman incident that revolutionized football transfers in the 1990’s, some good could result from the bad. I wonder if FIFA will change?

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Filed under:  Football
November 20th, 2009
01:51 PM ET

The Irish are barking up the wrong tree

Believe me when I say that I feel sorry for Ireland and I think it's scandalous they were prevented from qualifying for the 2010 World Cup by a goal which was scored after such a blatant handball. However, FIFA rules state and have always stated that the referee's decisions are final. There was never a chance of a replay.

A dejected Irish player reacts to his team's loss to France.
A dejected Irish player reacts to his team's loss to France.

Before I explain why Ireland's argument is misdirected, I will answer the question you are probably asking in your mind. What about the World Cup Qualifier in 2005 between Bahrain and Uzbekistan? That was replayed!

Yes it was, but for different reasons. The referee at the time made a crucial technical error which concerned the laws of the game. Instead of ordering a penalty to be retaken following encroachment in the area, he gave the opposing team a free kick. Therefore the rules had been compromised. This time they weren't. It was a judgment error on the part of the officiating crew.

So, onto the barking and the wrong tree. Ireland should use this opportunity to call for union between football federations around the world in a call for technology in football. This is a perfect time to have one voice in favor of using video replays. At a time when fans around the world have the chance to see every play from 10 different angles, it seems silly that the only man who doesn't have this benefit is the referee.

To their credit, UEFA have started experimenting with five referees, but even they have already made basic mistakes. At a recent Europa League match between Fulham and Roma, they sent off the wrong player after a foul in the area.

So Ireland, take this one on the chin, and take one for the team. You're not going to get a replay, so re-direct your energy towards uniting football federations to change the way the game is played. Is it fair? No. But focus your attention on a battle for a clearer and brighter future in football.

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Filed under:  Football
November 19th, 2009
09:52 AM ET

When will FIFA see what's staring us in the face?

An unpleasant whiff of injustice is polluting the air for football followers across the globe. France are through to the World Cup, but only after a blatant handball from Thierry Henry.

Henry: I will be honest. It was a handball.  AFP/Getty Images
Henry: I will be honest. It was a handball. AFP/Getty Images

Although they are celebrating qualification, Les Bleus look distinctly red-faced.

If you haven’t seen the controversial goal in question it shouldn’t take you long to find. Thousands have watched it online – many leaving outraged comments, believing that Henry handled the ball to stop it going out of play.

Without that illegal act there was no way he would have been able to set up William Gallas’s winning goal. And there is no debate over his guilt, because the Barcelona star has admitted as much.

“I will be honest. It was a handball,” he confessed afterwards. However, he insists it was up to the referee to spot the incident not for him to own up.

I agree it would have been an astonishing act of sportsmanship if Henry had rushed up to the match official to tell him the truth. There was so much at stake. A World Cup without France, the champions as recently as 1998, would have been unthinkable. And if the goal was ruled out because Henry intervened he would have been vilified in his home country.

Instead, he has become a villain for football fans everywhere else. There is a real danger that Henry’s reputation will be dented. The former Arsenal man is a skilful, speedy striker, graceful and so clean-cut that razor company Gillette use him to promote their brand globally, alongside stars like Roger Federer and Tiger Woods.

However, before we rush to sign the sporting obituary of this enchanting and genial performer we need to bear two things in mind.

First, Ireland’s manager Giovanni Trappatoni, given the chance to blame Henry, instead pointed the finger at the referee for missing the incident.

Second, even if the goal had been disallowed, the Republic would not necessarily have qualified for the World Cup finals. There were still 17 minutes of extra time to be played and then the tie would have gone to a penalty shoot-out, with no guarantee that Ireland would have come out on top.

Ultimately, Le Hand of God will again call into question FIFA’s refusal to use television replays to assist the referee during a game.

Within seconds of France’s "goal," replays showed the truth to viewers around the world. When will football’s governing body see what is staring the rest of us in the face?

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Filed under:  Football
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