Anyone who thinks Michael Schumacher is going to win the drivers’ title next year in Formula One is either German and blinded by patriotism or have allowed the festive spirit to cloud their judgment.
He’ll be aged 41 when he hits the grid for Mercedes at Bahrain in mid-March and most of those drivers around him will be nearly half his age.
It’s a massive factor, even if you have the experience of winning seven drivers’ titles and have your old boss, Ross Brawn, back at your side.
New rules come into play; no scheduled pit stops next year means that the physical demands on the drivers has been cranked up a few notches. Only the youngest and fittest will survive and Schumacher will be neither.
Let’s not leave out the fact that Ferrari and McLaren will be back to their best after throwing away the last third of last season to develop their 2010 cars. They won’t get caught asleep by Brawn like they did this year.
And both the Italian and British teams boast three former world champions between them who desperately won’t want Schumacher to steal their glory.
Throw in a few more technical rule changes coming Formula One’s way next year and testing for all teams can’t start until February 1 and Schumy has a mountain to climb.
He won’t have the technical advances over other teams like he did at Ferrari as well as the bigger budget or the bigger team.
The greatest thing for Formula One through his new deal is that it offers the best build-up to the start of a season in recent memory. Even throughout the year there will be some great battles involving the former champ.
Picture this: It’s Silverstone and McLaren’s all English driver set-up takes on Germany’s Mercedes team with Rosberg and Schumacher in the cockpit. A mouth-watering battle; let’s just hope it doesn’t rain or Schumy’s got it in the bag.
His decision comes at a time when the sport desperately needs a boost after the ugliest and most controversial season in 2009 in living memory.
Car makers have dropped out and so too many sponsors. Schumacher will bring attention to the sport on track for all the right reasons and current sponsors of the sport will be jumping for joy. Potential sponsors might now decide to put pent to paper.
There are many reasons to welcome Schumacher's return but there's more chance of bumping into Rudolph the red nose reindeer than another title going the way of the legendary German.
Two months ago I wrote a blog about Rafa Benitez's precarious position as Liverpool manager. At the time the Spaniard was bemoaning his lack of squad size and I was posing the question that really he only had himself to blame.
My posting came just before the Premier League match at home to Manchester United, a game I felt they had no chance of winning.
Well, what did I know...They beat the champions 2-0 at Anfield that day, a result that gave renewed hope to the red half of Merseyside and meant they were still very much in the title race.
Since then, Liverpool have crashed out of the Champions League and the English Coca-Cola Cup and, at the time of writing, they lie a lowly eighth in the Premier League - eight points away from Aston Villa, who occupy the fourth and final Champions League placing.
In a season where a new order is beginning to emerge in English football, with Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City all looking to challenge the established elite, Liverpool are being left behind.
Sure, they can still win the FA Cup and the Europa League, in which the patriotic English bookmakers have laughingly made them favorites ahead of teams like Valencia and Juventus, but does even the most ardent 'Red' believe that will happen?
The truth is that Rafa has had his time at Anfield and has to go, as soon as possible, for this great club to rebuild again.
OK..so the fans have not turned against him, but so what. That is only because they reserve their ire for the unpopular American owners who many believe are at the root cause of Liverpool's problems.
Well, I don't buy that at all. Rafa has had fortunes to spend and they are nowhere nearer ending their 19-year wait for title glory.
So, why hasn't he been sacked yet...Is finance the answer?..Can Liverpool not afford to sack Rafa?..If that is true, then they'll have even less cash when they fail to qualify for the Champions League next season - and a place in the Europa League won't be a certainty either judging by their abject recent 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth.
Things have got to change at Anfield, and quickly. Look at the players Rafa doesn't use...Ryan Babel, Andrei Voronin, Andra Dossena, Phillip Degen...why not sell those four and use the money..whatever it is...to sign a striker. Any striker who can score a few goals. He doesn't have to be a world-beater, just a good back-up for the amazing Fernando Torres.
Benni Mccarthy wants to leave Blackburn..The veteran Kevin Phillips isn't playing at Birmingham....How about Luca Toni, who Bayern Munich want to offload...Are you seriously telling me Luca Toni would not improve Liverpool's squad?..Plus he would provide company for fellow-Italian Alberto Aquilani, who is starting to look like the most expensive mistake in Liverpool's history.
Do some wheeler-dealing Rafa...Do something...But don't pass the buck or blame anybody else, because you have put Liverpool in this mess and - as seems increasingly likely - until you are finally relieved of your duties, only you can get them out of it.
Sympathy has been almost universal for sacked Manchester City manager Mark Hughes and it is clear that the club's Abu Dhabi backers are taking a huge gamble turning to Roberto Mancini, who has no experience in English club management and will be given precious little time to adapt.
It's a gamble because Mancini has been out of the game for almost a year after departing Inter, having won three Serie A titles but failing to make an impression in the Champions League.
It's a gamble because they are presumably entrusting him with more millions in the January transfer window to shore up a leaky back four and make a final push for a Champions League place.
It's a gamble because several of the players who have flourished under Hughes, such as Shay Given and Craig Bellamy, are clearly in open revolt over the manner of his dismissal.
And it's a gamble because most expected Hughes to be given until the end of the season and if he failed to be replaced by Guus Hiddink, or even Jose Mourinho, both of whom with a track record in the English Premier League.
Admittedly, his critics will say Hughes had enough time at City and had been bankrolled to the tune of $200 million to deliver results, but even the most hard-hearted must agree that the City board grossly mishandled his departure.
Because even by comparison with other disgraceful sackings, and I have in mind the treatment afforded to Martin Jol at Tottenham, this was shabby in the extreme and showed a distinct lack of "class" by the City board.
Hughes has quickly broken his silence to reveal that he had no real idea he was on his way, despite the media speculation, and was "extremely disappointed."
I suspect that's an understatement and the suspicion that Mancini had been lined up for several weeks must leave a sour taste in his month.
Other managers, even Arsene Wenger, who refused to shake his hand after City had denied his side a place in the English League Cup semifinals, have expressed their opposition to the sacking.
Hardly surprising because turkeys don't vote for Christmans and managerial solidarity remains strong in the topsy-turvy world of the Premier League, but there is a feeling that this is a sacking too far and will lead to fresh doubts about the role of "foreign" owners in English football.
It will be hardly reassuring to Mancini that he will have to deliver results in double quick time and if Hughes had some advice for the suave Italian it would be don't believe a word the owners tell you.
According to Hughes, he was set a target of finishing in the top six and Saturday's win – admittedly only the second in 11 Premier League games with a raft of draws – had left them in sixth.
Add the small matter of the League Cup and the chance of winning silverware for the first time since 1976 and it is easy to see why Mancini has a mighty task on his hands to satisfy a group of businessman who view footballing success as a commodity which can be bought.
They're wrong, of course, and might do well to heed words of advice from the great Alex Ferguson, who has steered City's neighbors to trophy after trophy for two decades and has often warned that money does not guarantee succcess.
"The art of management is building a team with balance, with certain characteristics that blend with each other," said Fergie on 2008. Quite.
Jose Mourinho is a fantastic coach. There is little doubt about it. His record speaks for itself and his ability to get the most out of players is unquestionable.
However, his apparent need to upset opposing coaches, players and members of the media is damaging his image and could one day be the source of his undoing.
The latest episode involving an alleged insult or assault on an Italian journalist is just the latest in an ongoing saga of self-inflicted blows. There is rarely a week where he does not have something negative to say about someone, a point proved when his recent criticism of a referee decision resulted in him being sent off. But when confronted by questions from the media about his behavior, Jose invariably snaps back in an aggressive tone rather than considering what he has done.
Here in England he was revered and respected. He was one of the few managers whose ego was larger than his team, and sometimes even larger than life. The media couldn't get enough of him.
In Italy it has been a different story. The journalists there are used to big personalities and have not been so entertained with Jose's need to grab all the attention. They have started showing their displeasure for his attitude and demeanor, and he has not relented.
If I were Jose I would re-evaluate my behavior. I would count on my advisers to help me rebuild my image. Someone would have to tell me that you can be successful and reasonable and that the siege mentality he creates is not always necessary.
However, I am afraid this might not happen anytime soon, and I justify my opinion by telling you the following story:
Back in 2005, I once voted for Fabio Capello instead of Jose Mourinho on a World Soccer Magazine poll of best managers of the Champions League. Word got out and I immediately received a text from one of his representatives saying that Jose would never speak with me again. Following that initial reaction, I justified my vote and repeatedly tried to interview Jose, but to no avail. For some reason, Jose and his advisers thought that I should have compromised my journalistic integrity and voted for him just because I was Portuguese. This episode made me sad then and makes me sad now because we had a great relationship before it happened.
I still hope that one day we will get a chance to talk about this, maybe even laugh about it. Perhaps he will prove me wrong and show all of us a different side to his personality. I sincerely hope his belligerent nature does not destroy his career; it would be a waste.
Nike's decision to stand firmly beside Tiger Woods while others like Accenture and Gillette move away should come as no surprise.
Unlike Woods's tie-up with Accenture, which comes in the form of a comprehensive advertising campaign, Nike's deal with the world number one pretty much carries their entire investment in the golf equipment market. He is their golf industry all in one.
When I interviewed Nike Golf President Bob Wood in 2007 and discussed the relationship with Tiger on the back of another seven-year-deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars, here's how he summed it up:
"[When] you go back to the beginning. We had made shoes and some apparel for about 12 years before we signed Tiger. But I can pretty much say today and I've said it to him, I don't think we'd be in the golf business if it wasn't for Tiger," he explained.
You can see why Nike Chairman Phil Knight was on the front foot on Monday backing their prized asset and indeed hoping the scandal surrounding his off-course movements prove to be a “blip.”
"I think he has been really great. When his career is over, you'll look back on these indiscretions as a minor blip, but the media is making a big deal out of it right now," he said.
It’s not just right now that everything to do with Tiger is a “big deal.” When you are the biggest marketing tool the game has ever had - Woods time as a professional has seen the USPGA Tour prize money grow from $80 million annually to this year's total of $280 million - then the risk of losing him becomes a massive deal.
When he stepped away from the game to recover from knee surgery there was not so much panic but real concern for the health of everybody involved in the industry, not just Nike. Interest in the game fell sharply, especially on U.S. television where numbers dropped by as much as 60 per cent.
Nike’s decision to enter the challenging equipment market about seven years ago, to go head-to-head with established brands like MacGregor, Titleist, Callaway and Cobra came with spending hundreds of millions of dollars on research and development, design and distribution.
Tiger was key, and still is, to their marketing because he brought not just exposure for the brand but credibility to the design of the clubs and balls. “Sometimes you get asked 'how much do you sell because of Tiger?' and it's like I just sort of attribute us being as serious as we are and as important as we are to the relationship we have with him,” Bob Wood said to me in 2007.
“It's kind of a fact of life at Nike that when you have somebody that is that important, when you consider yourself a product company and a sports company, you're making product…you know we make the stuff he makes his living with. And we can't make bad product.”
By the time Tiger comes back to playing he will more than likely be still world number one so it will take a lot more than a few personal demons to scare Nike away from Tiger Woods with so much on the line.
It’s official. Nothing surprises me in sport. If even half of the lurid kiss-and-tell tales are covered by Tiger’s admission of “infidelity”, then nothing is sacred.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to moralize. Not least of all because I can’t begin to understand the temptations routinely placed before a man who not only dominates his chosen sport, but IS his chosen sport. What dumbfounds me is that a guy who seemed to be the ultimate control freak in terms of his game and public image can have made such a huge error of judgment.
I’ve met Tiger several times, and, like any journalist who’s tried to extract a pithy quote from him, I realized I was only getting the tip of the iceberg. What I didn’t realize was that what lay beneath his guarded exterior was not depth and maturity, but a naive, duplicitous character who was so much less than the sum of his corporate parts.
That said, his most recent statement about needing to take a break from golf for what he called “personal healing” and the chance to become “a better husband, father, and person” at least suggests that Tiger has at last stopped fooling himself as well as the rest of us, and is prepared to seek the man we believed him to be.
Whether that’s too late to save his marriage is not for me to speculate. But, in my opinion, it’s certainly too late to salvage his image as a sporting icon. Rightly or wrongly, we expect our heroes to be role models. And even though there’s a list as long as a fairway of men and women who’ve failed to live up to that ideal, we persist in creating demi-gods out of people whose only real obligation is to be good athletes.
Hence, Tiger was on a pedestal, perhaps the highest one of them all. And, having embraced that role, I don’t believe this perfect storm of controversy will allow him to erase the indelible stain it's created. He's fallen from way too high.
And, of course, that’s a shock and a shame when speaking of a man who has sought and achieved perfection throughout his career. Great champion, flawed individual - certainly not the legacy Tiger Woods expected to leave.
With Laurent Blanc’s French champions Bordeaux back on top of the Ligue Un standings, it’s a brave person in my view who would back them to be displaced again before the end of the current campaign. I believe “ Les Girondins” have had their “blip” and will have learned from those two back-to-back losses late last month.
Their recent three–nil win on the road at Nancy oozed class and was achieved without the considerable talents of Yoann Gourcuff, who missed out due to a groin injury. It may not be a powerhouse squad compared with some of Europe’s big guns but there is strength in depth now compared to a couple of seasons back and for me the club’s true stand-out asset is none other than the head coach himself who’s orchestrated some fine performances in this season’s champions league campaign. Just ask Bayern Munich and Juventus both of whom finished below Bordeaux in qualifying with the Italians failing to advance.
I recall meeting Blanc and chatting briefly with him during the Fifa World Cup of 2006 in Germany. Like all students of the game, he was almost certainly there to learn. Not just more about the game he graced for so long as a player but also perhaps to gather more insight into what it takes to fulfill his next career goal. I wondered at the time where would we see him next. Just what were his immediate plans? Certainly back then he was giving little away. At least not to me!
Prior to '06, I also recall sitting amongst some Manchester united fans who were lees than complimentary about the Frenchman during his brief spell as a defender at Old Trafford. Just to recap, United coach Alex Ferguson had brought Blanc to United to have the then former French International shore up his defence while at the same time giving his younger squad players the chance to benefit from playing with such an experienced campaigner. Blanc weighed in with a few key goals too in his time at United but maybe after all it was he was embarking on a hugely significant learning curve too.
I’m quite certain Laurent’s long term goal has been to become a top coach and who better to learn from than Alex Ferguson himself? Blanc must have picked up some top tips during his time in England under Fergie and I feel he’s putting them into use right now at Bordeaux. Already he’s being heavily linked with the French national team once Raymond Domenech’s reign comes to an end and I feel utterly certain than when and if Blanc makes it known he’s ready for a new challenge away from Ligue Un….. there will be one big stampede to sign him up!
The daily revelations about Tiger Woods' personal life have been like gold dust for media outlets around the world, the salacious speculation proving too sensational for any reader to be without reaction or thirst to find out more. From disgust and disbelief to sympathy and support, as details of the golfer's misdeeds continue to unravel it is hard not to have an opinion on the transgressions of the tarnished Tiger.
However, a more pertinent opinion for golf fans might be how the events of the last few weeks will affect the performance, and ultimately the legacy, of a player who from the start of his illustrious career has been tipped to become the greatest golfer to ever grace the game.
Such status would not be confirmed by conjecture, but hard statistics. The 33-year-old American, since claiming his first Major in 1997, has racked up an amazing 14 titles, winning in a manner that has drawn countless new fans to the game.
His current standing is just four short of the overall record of 18 Major tournament victories set by Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus retired in 2005 aged 65 - the potential for Tiger, whose career is in its infancy by comparison, to not only match Nicklaus but to surpass the great man's mark, is there for all to see.
Tiger's ascension to greatness was widely assumed a foregone conclusion, but given the ferocious nature of the current media storm, who is to say what kind of player will emerge back onto the greens?
Sure, Woods has shown his unrivaled caliber for competing under pressure before, but now the intensity of the media glare on the greens is matched in the realm of his private life too. Extreme focus and mental strength will be required for such scrutiny to not affect the man, let alone the player putting for prizes in front of an audience of millions.
The pre and post-round interviews, so long a stroll-in-the-park for the media-savvy Woods, now look a daunting prospect; a minefield of loaded questions primed to further damage his already battle-scarred image. Will Woods be able to keep a clear mind while playing in the knowledge that competition means more questions?
How will the crowd react? Will Woods ever be able to play on a golf course again without distracting comments from the galleries that surround his place of work? If his performance dips on the course how many of the brands associated with him will want to weather his off-course problems?
How Woods manages his comeback will be fascinating to watch, but only time will tell whether the world's best golfer has hampered his own bid to become the greatest ever, in a more emphatic way than any of his golfing rivals could have delivered.
So, battle lines have been drawn, and each team now knows the immediate task ahead.
For some there'll be joy as they see a clear way through to the knock-out phase, while for others there'll be gloom with the realization that, short of a miracle, their World Cup may well last just three games.
No coach worth his salt will admit to either feeling though, as over-confidence piles on the pressure and sets you up for a fall, while a lack of confidence can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead, they'll head home, diplomatic and purposeful, to plan their strategies.
Ahead lies months of looking at tapes of the opposition; examining statistics; listening to scouting reports on this player and that; mulling over your squad selection; team formations; training schedule; accommodation etc.
The list is endless, but no detail can be overlooked, because 99 per cent preparation tends to equal 100 per cent failure.
So let's take a quick look at the groups. No doubt about the group of death, that's Group G.
Brazil, the five-times champions, are an obvious force; Portugal, who were semifinalists at the last World Cup, did not qualify well, but they have more than they showed; the Ivory Coast, African Cup of Nations runner-up, did not lose in the qualifiers, and have quality throughout; and North Korea, are an unknown quantity, who should be the whipping boys, but you never know.
The Netherlands are the best footballing nation never to win a World Cup, but nobody's talking about the Dutch threat. They won their European group by a landslide, and their World Cup group with Denmark, Japan and Cameroon should afford them a comfortable passage to the knock-out phase.
Germany and Ghana will not have things their own way in Group D. Serbia didn't stroll through the qualifiers, but won their group. And then there's Australia, who have quietly built into a real force. They dominated in the Asian qualifiers, and you'll remember how close they ran Italy in 2006. So this group could produce some drama.
Argentina can't breathe that easily either. Former European champions Greece have, in Otto Rehagel, the anti Maradona - a seasoned methodical coach as opposed to the inexperienced Diego who manages by instinct. South Korea have a decent world cup pedigree, and then there's Nigeria, a nation that didn't qualify that impressively, but has proved capable of rising to the World Cup challenge in the past. If not the group of death, it's no cake walk either.
South Africa will face a job to get out of their group, as we suspected. Unseeded France are clearly the favorites. Then it's a case of duking it out for second place between Mexico and Uruguay, with Mexico my tip to pull it off. Bafana Bafana will need to really dig deep to avoid being the first host not to make it to the knock-out phase. Carlos Alberto Parreira you have a tough few months ahead.
My home team, England, should make the second phase with some comfort. The USA will raise their game against the mother country, but I don't believe they have the weapons to hurt the English unduly. Algeria and Slovenia should not trouble Fabio Capello's men, though, if there is a banana skin, it could be the gutsy Algerians.
Finally, Italy and Spain can rejoice, because they are far and away the favorites to advance from their groups, with Paraguay and Chile respectively, my choice to join them in the last 16.
And that's my take on the draw. Though, as we all discovered when most of the big guns underperformed at the 2002 World Cup in Asia, when teams travel to unfamiliar territory, strange things can happen.
And let's face it, whether you do this for a living like me, believe yourself to be an armchair expert, or are just a casual fan, we all know varying degrees of nothing until it all kicks off in June. Let the games begin.
Thirty-two teams, eight seeds, four pots from which eight groups of four will be drawn. No two teams from the same qualifying region may be drawn together, with the exception of Europe, which may have two representatives in each group. Those are the facts for Friday’s World Cup draw in Cape Town, South Africa.
The prelude to the greatest show on Earth always reminds me of election night, when you sit round the TV watching the political landscape develop one result at a time. And just like in the political arena, the outcome will set the tone for what is to come when the real business begins next June.
Of course, the process will be meticulous, to avoid any accusation of unfair “stage management”. But if I were coach of any of the seeds - which include hosts South Africa, reigning champions Italy, Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, the Netherlands and reigning European champions Spain - there are several teams I’d certainly hope to avoid.
Top of my list would be France. Unseeded but ranked seventh in the world, the French have their pride at stake. After an embarrassingly early exit from last year’s European Championship, they struggled through the World Cup qualifiers, drew the wrath of the world with a controversial play-off victory against Ireland, and have, in Raymond Domenech, a coach under siege.
In short, Les Bleus, who let’s remember have made two of the last three finals, winning in 1998, are a wounded tiger. So beware.
As we all know, this is Africa’s first World Cup. And, though Africa is a continent not a country, I believe that most Africans, regardless of nationality, see this tournament as theirs, and will back every African team against all-comers. So, home advantage will go to all six African teams not just South Africa.
And the two teams tipped to make home-advantage count are the Ivory Coast and Ghana. The Elephants, as the Ivory Coast are known, qualified impressively without losing a match. They boast a squad drawn substantially from the cream of European football, and are spearheaded by one of the most feared strikers in the game - Didier Drogba. They also want to atone for 2006, when they went out in the first round. So, my expectation is that the Elephants will charge.
Ghana might also be a team best avoided by the big guns early on. The Black Stars were the first team to qualify for the finals; are defensively sound, (belying the hoary old criticism that African teams lack defensive discipline); and are riding the crest of a wave after winning the Under-20 World Cup. What’s more, despite having made the finals for only the second time, Ghana is regarded as a sleeping giant of African football, which may be about to awaken.
Chile and Paraguay would also be on my by-pass list. In the unusually tight South American qualifiers, they finished second and third respectively, each with only one less point than five-time World Champions, Brazil. Chile is a quality side that scores a lot of goals. And, as the youngest team to make it from South America, tend to play without inhibition. Meantime, Paraguay is a well balanced team, strong in defense with a new found potency in attack.
Mind you, looking through the field there are few teams I’d consider pushovers. Would you fancy taking on Australia in the first-phase after they ran eventual champions, Italy, so close in 2006? They also dominated their group in the 2010 qualifiers despite switching regions from Oceania to a tougher Asian section.
And what about the unpredictable USA? While their only World Cup of note was in 2002 when they made the quarter-finals, they proved in this year’s Confederations Cup Final against Brazil that they can test the best on their day.
As the cliché goes, there are no easy games in international football, and I can’t wait to see who meets who in 2010.
If you’d like to follow the draw along with analysis via Skype from CNN's expert panel, make sure to visit the Connect the World Web page later today and click on "join the chat." All you need to get involved is a Skype username. We look forward to hearing your opinions as each country discovers its fate.
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