The announcement by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) that Togo have been suspended from the next two Africa Cup of Nations and fined $50,000 will come as a surprise to many football fans around the world.
The governing body of the game for the continent of Africa will argue they have merely stuck by the letter of the law. Togolese politicians had no right to call home their national team from participating in the Nations Cup in Angola and by doing so they clearly contravened CAF regulations.
The move in CAF's eyes, was contrary to the wishes of captain Emmanuel Adebayor and his teammates to stay and participate; political interference in international football is prohibited, consequently Togo's "Hawks" must pay the price.
The mix of politics and football is a particularly thorny issue in Africa, a fact that may explain why CAF have reacted in a seemingly draconian manner, though the organization normally dishing out the discipline is world football's governing body, FIFA.
Unlike most national football associations around the world, where large revenues are created through the sale of broadcast rights and merchandise, most federations in Africa rely on the benefit of the state to operate.
In the past, this has led to unwarranted government influence when key decisions concerning the running of football were made according to FIFA, and consequently the independence of soccer organizations has been vehemently defended.
Ethiopia were prevented from taking part in the qualifying rounds of the 2010 World Cup for such reasons, while Kenya were suspended from international competition as recently as 2006 after their national federation became factionalized along political lines.
Nigeria came within a whisker of sanctions during the same period, while Niger suffered a ban in 2004 after "repeated interference from political authorities" in the affairs of the Niger Football Federation forced FIFA to act.
This is all well and good, but surely CAF have failed to appreciate the human circumstances behind Togo's failure to fulfill their fixtures.
The Togo team may have put themselves in more danger by ignoring CAF advice to fly to the tournament, they may also have warranted ejection from the event when they failed to play their opening match, but how many other national teams have watched three of their party die at the hands of machine-gun wielding attackers?
How many teams in history have faced playing a tournament with squad members struggling to recover from gunshot wounds?
Whether CAF's choice to ignore the simple and extraordinary facts surrounding Togo's tragic tale will prove a mistake only time will tell, but from a public relations point of view, surely to punish a team that is still reeling from the horror of their ordeal is to rub salt in already bloody wounds.
Let me ask you a question, is there still a place for national pride in professional sport?
Andy Murray’s Australian Open run has, once again, sparked a lot of interest in his homeland, with Brits salivating over the prospect of the nation getting its first male winner of a Grand Slam since Fred Perry in 1936.
All well and good, Murray is a Scot, and after being starved of success by their countrymen for so long it’s understandable if the Brits relish having a real contender to fly the flag.
The only thing is, while his passport says “British”, Murray’s talents are a product of Spain, as he moved there as a 15-year-old with the specific purpose of honing his game in a system with a far better pedigree than anything on offer in Britain.
That is not a criticism of Andy. In fact it’s the opposite, as he was single-minded enough to make the sacrifice of leaving his home and family in order to realize his goals. But it does beg the question as to which nation, if any, should take credit for his achievements?
Of course, Murray is not the only tennis player or indeed athlete who’s gone overseas to launch or further his or her career.
In the United States, the colleges are full of foreign students who’ve gone to America to benefit from the superb training facilities and coaching expertise on offer in Track & Field, in which the country excels.
Still, at subsequent Olympics, World and European Championships you’ll seldom hear those foreign athletes acknowledge their debt to the United States, because it’s all about national pride.
But I just wonder whether all that flag-waving is really warranted, when your home country has done little or nothing to help you achieve your goals.
Football is another sport where national pride is possibly misplaced. Naturally, after this year’s World Cup in South Africa, one nation will be crowing about being the best in the world.
But will that be the case, as so many of the players on display at any major international football tournament do not ply, or in some cases, even learn their trade in the country of their birth.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against patriotism per se. I just feel it’s something for sports fans to exhibit more than the athletes themselves, because in the 21st century there are no national boundaries or characteristics in the sporting world. It truly is a global village.
Barcelona to sign England striker Wayne Rooney, Bayern Munich to offload Franck Ribery or Rafael Benitez to quit Liverpool and join up with Italian giants Juventus ... a selection of just some of the best rumors circulating on the internet as the January European transfer window draws to end, and let's be thankful of their presence!
In years gone by, the deadline day of February 1 was an event to excite football fans around the world as a few of the more far-fetched speculative statements were revealed as truth.
It was rumor columns that touted the prospect of Brazilian star striker Robinho leaving the regal surroundings of Real Madrid for the rain-soaked environs of Manchester City last year, and as fantastical as the deal seemed, the transfer went through with only hours to spare.
The signing of Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov by English Premier League champions Manchester United was conducted in much the same fashion, but the anticipated frenzy of financial ducking and diving from managers, coaches, clubs and players around the continent has so far not happened this time around.
In such harsh financial times, with many teams struggling with debt, the first window for transaction of 2010 - which started on the first day of January and is due to shut on February 1 - has proved rather a damp squib compared to previous years.
In the English Premier League alone, $272m was spend over the same period in 2009. With the deadline looming, at the time of writing, only $17.6m of cash has changed hands. Has there been any bigger transfer between European teams in monetary terms than Andrea Dossena's $7.2 million switch from Liverpool to Napoli of Italy? Speaking as a fan, the pulse is not racing!
So, here at World Sport, we're asking for football fans around the world to help fill the dramatic void of factual happenings with some exciting rumor and speculation. Have you heard any good whispers regarding who your team may sign? Which players do you want your club to pursue? And what message do you have for the coaches keen to snatch your side's star player?
Let us hear your thoughts by commenting below.
There’s a dubious distinction hanging over the head of the host nation of next month’s Winter Games. It has to do with the lack of gold medals hanging around the collective necks of former Olympians. Did you know that Canada is the only country to host the Olympics twice and fail to win a single gold medal?
The national embarrassment caused by coming away from both the Montreal Summer Games in 1976 and the Calgary Winter Games in 1988, without an Olympic title and only 16 combined medals, has made “striking gold” in Vancouver “priority one” for the Canadian Olympic team.
To that end, the “Own the Podium” initiative was born. In the years leading up to the February 12th opening ceremony, Canadian athletes have gone through rigorous training in hopes of doing just that, owning the podiums at the 2010 Games.
The program collected over $110-million in public and private money aimed at getting homegrown Olympians gold medal ready. The United States, Canada’s friendly but fiercely competitive neighbor, took up a similar approach ahead of the Salt Lake City Olympics but with less funding. It resulted in 10 gold medals and 34 overall as the host nation of the 2002 Winter Games trailed only Germany.
Four years ago, Canadian athletes came home from Italy with 24 medals, including 7 gold. So, if one is to believe in the power of momentum, then the signs are looking up for Canada ahead of “their” Games.
The stated goal is a record 35 medals with strong prospects coming from the team sports of men’s and women’s hockey and curling. 19-year-old Patrick Chan, a silver medalist at the World Figure Skating Championships and son of Chinese immigrants, is eyeing gold. So is reigning Olympic mogul skiing champion Jennifer Heil who could get things off to a hot start for Canada by defending her gold medal on the very first day of competition.
But, with big dreams come big pressure and many feel it falls squarely on the shoulders of Canada’s star-studded men’s hockey team which failed to win a medal in Torino.
A similar fate in Vancouver would be crushing to a nation that holds the sport in such high regard.
For a country that fancies itself as a “leader” in winter sports, the Olympics coming back to Canadian soil gives the hosts another chance to show off their considerable talents.
Only this time expect these games, at the very least, to be ‘trimmed in gold’ for Canada.
I know it’s a bit late for 2010 sporting predictions but watching the Australian Open has prompted a revelation.
Instead of hankering for a mythical golden age when [John] McEnroe, [Boris] Becker, [Stefan] Edberg and [Jimmy] Connors strode the court, my rose tinted spectacles have been lifted. I have gazed into the future and am licking my lips at the prospect of a mouth-watering year of tennis action.
In many ways, sports fans have already been spoilt for choice over the last decade and a half. Take a look at CNN’s Decade Dominators on these very web pages and there have been some glittering performers to admire.
But every Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher and Lance Armstrong needs a strong rival before the sporting sparks are really able to fly – and that’s why I think tennis is shaping up for a fascinating 12 months.
After Roger Federer replaced Pete Sampras as the major power in the men’s game, he looked untouchable for a while. Then, before we could get fed up with "The Fed", along came Rafael Nadal to show us how tennis titles could be racked up in a very different but no less thrilling way.
They will both finish their careers as legends of the sport and, putting aside the concerns about Nadal’s knee for a moment, we should enjoy their Swiss-Spanish rivalry for some time. What makes it even more exciting is the throng of potential greats who are lining up to challenge them.
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, Britain’s Andy Murray and Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro are the next highest ranked players and it would take a brave person to bet against any of them building tennis CV's to compare with the very best.
And what a fantastic mix of styles and approaches – Federer, graceful and balanced, Nadal, the "muscley Madrista" with a flashing forehand, Djokovic, the locker room joker who can also produce smiles on the court with his crisp ground strokes, Murray’s guile and athleticism and Del Potro’s colossal court presence are an intriguing mix.
And if you add Andy Roddick, Nikolay Davydenko, Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga the men’s game suddenly looks as competitive as it has been for many years – maybe since the 1980s or early 1990s.
Although the women’s game is suffering by comparison, it too can look forward to a fascinating 2010.
The return of Belgian duo Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters has made everyone sit up and take notice. Serena Williams appears to be taking her tennis as seriously as at any stage of her career and her rise to number one may yet provoke a response from Dinara Safina, mocked for her uncomfortable reign at the top of the rankings for much of 2009.
If youngsters Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka and Agnieska Radwanska keep improving and Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic rediscover their Grand-Slam winning ways, the women could yet match the men for unparalleled rivalry.
So the new tennis season is underway and on the eve of the Australian Open there is so much to be excited about! Unlike last year, the women’s game has a chance to take centre stage thanks to the returning Belgians. Kim Clijsters is a delight to watch and her unbelievable US Open victory helped bring back Justine Henin too.
Henin’s coach, Carlos Rodriguez, recently told us that Justine would take more time than Kim to experience success. I think he’s right. Justine has a lot more to her game than her compatriot – therefore there’s more that can go wrong. Henin is also a lot smaller and much less powerful so hitting hard from the baseline is not something she can fall back on.
On the other hand, there’s an awful lot that can go very, very right, and so, with more matches under her belt, perhaps the French Open is a more realistic target.
Justine’s goal though is Wimbledon, the one Slam missing from her impressive C.V. For her it’s winnable – she has all the tools, especially in the head department, which is arguably the most important department in tennis!
On the men’s side, every Major win for Roger Federer is a bonus from now on but he won’t see it that way, he cherishes each Grand Slam. Every time he steps on court he aims to win – only when Roger is no longer competing for Grand Slam victories will he quit and happily I don’t see that happening for quite a few years.
The problem for the Swiss maestro is that a few pretenders are now contenders. I now see the Aussie Open men’s winner coming from a pool of eight – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, del Porto, Murray, Davydenko, Soderling and Tsonga.
The main thing that amazes me about Federer (quite a lot amazes me, but I don’t have time to write them all down) is how calm he is about everything.
Saturday was media day at the Australian Open, it is always a complete frenzy, and though I’m not there I can imagine he’s taking it all in his stride.
From my experience, despite the fact he has traveled with his wife and twin girls, he’ll answer every question thrown at him, no matter how stupid, and do it all in a very nice way with very little sarcasm.
That’s why (the calmness, not the sarcasm!) I think he’ll win at least another two Slams this year and for us, the fans, it will never get old. The question is: will he beat the pack to win in Melbourne?
I say yes!
Women’s winner: Kim Clijsters
Men’s winner: Roger Federer
What do you think?
In the second week of February I'll be flying out to cover my first Winter Olympics and you probably will not be surprised to hear that I am excited about attending. However, as a British sports fan and, let's be honest, all sports journalists are fans too, that is not an easy thing to admit.
Though as a European there were the skiing greats such as Franz Klammer, Petra Kronberger and Alberto Tomba to celebrate, Britain's medal hopes in cold competition often melted faster than a snowman on a sunbed.
Britain produced Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, who struck gold and revolutionized figure skating in the 1980s, but also ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, who did not soar into the sky as much as hold his nose, close his eyes and step off the end of the ramp.
That was at Calgary in 1988 – an unbelievable Olympics. Why unbelievable? Because it was the first time Canada had staged the games, 64 years after they began. And because the host nation did not win a single gold medal. I hope the so-called commentator's curse will not affect things here, but I can't see that happening again this year.
And I don't think I am going out on a limb to say the one sport Canada is most keen to triumph in is ice hockey. The men's team missed out on a medal four years ago and it caused a stir, but here is where I need your help dear readers.
I've been a sports broadcaster for nearly two decades and reported on nearly all mainstream events – as well as some weird and wacky ones – but ice hockey is one sport I just don't "get." It's clearly fast and skillful and the players are even allowed to have punch-ups, a bit like rugby union which I enjoy. However, I just can't get excited about it.
Maybe it's as simple as not growing up watching it or that I don't know most of the rules. Icing seems as indecipherable to me as football's offside rule does to my wife. Horse racing used to leave me cold too but a former sports editor loved it, made me learn about it and then I started to appreciate it.
Although ice hockey doesn't float my boat right now it's still the event I'm most looking forward to watching in Vancouver. Why? Well, I'm guessing if the Canadians can't convert me into a fan no-one can.
Like everyone else, sportsmen and women have watched in horror and disbelief as the tragedy of the Haiti earthquake has continued to unfold. In the cosseted world of professional sport, where mental focus is everything, it would be easy to switch off to the reality of world events in favor of concentrating on your next match or race. But athletes are famed for responding to tragedies like the one in Haiti with compassion and generosity.
When the Tsunami struck Asia in December 2004, the response of the sporting world was almost universal. In cricket, Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, led an All-Star charity line-up in a match to raise funds for the relief effort, while players and officials from India, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe were among those to make donations.
Tennis players also responded, with superstars like Roger Federer and Andy Roddick lending their support to UNICEF’s disaster fund-raising program.
In Formula One, seven-time champion, Michael Schumacher, made a $10 million personal donation to the relief fund. While footballers, who are often maligned for being self-centered and materialistic, made a mockery of that assumption by staging "Football for Hope", a FIFA sanctioned match in Barcelona, Spain featuring the likes of David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane, Kaka, Andriy Shevchenko, and Ronaldinho.
And so it continues. The Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, which devastated the USA’s Gulf Coast, brought swift reaction from American sport. Aside from visits to the stricken region by stars from the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League baseball, there were also generous donations from men like Baron Davis of the Golden State Warriors, who put $50,000 of his own money into the relief fund; and Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who, through his family foundation, donated $200,000 to help Katrina evacuees in Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, and Ohio.
And the commitment of sport to the relief effort did not wane, with the NFL organizing the "NFL Hurricane Relief Weekend" late in 2005, which included a telethon involving more than 30 current and former NFL stars who raised money for the Katrina cause.
But it is not just the glitterati of sport who channel their compassion into tangible help for disaster victims. In 2008, track and field athletes who competed in the NCAA collegiate championships pitched in to help with the flood relief effort in Iowa. While going way back, runners of every age and ability joined forces in the global event that was “Run the World” in 1986, in which some 20 million people in 76 countries took to the streets in a mass jog as part of Sport Aid, which raised millions for famine relief in Africa.
I could go on, but as you see, sportsmen and women have rallied round in the past, and will surely do so again to help the victims in Haiti. Sport has a conscience. And, while that fact can often get lost amid all the drama and scandal that surrounds the sporting industry, it should not be forgotten.
The tragic events of Friday, which saw at least two people killed and seven of the Togo national soccer party injured from a machine-gun attack en route to the Africa Cup of Nations, has shocked the world of football.
Angola is a nation that has suffered its fair share of grief in recent times - the southern African state only emerged from a bloody three-decade long civil war when a peace deal was signed with Cabinda separatists in 2002 - and the hosting of the Nations Cup was symbolic of a united nation looking to the future; the fact that two of those traveling to celebrate this fact lost their lives is both sad and regrettable.
It is a shame too, because in a year when the spotlight is shining on African football like never before, the event has reaffirmed anxieties held by many that a continent often associated with tragedy in recent times will be unable to safely host a World Cup.
The knee-jerk reaction is understandable - it is all too easy to associate loss of life with "soccer safety" in Africa. In 1993, 18 of the Zambian national side were killed in a plane crash as they flew to play Senegal in a World Cup qualifying fixture. Tragedy struck again in 2007 when a helicopter carrying 20 of the Togo delegation, including sport minster Richard Attipoe, crashed traveling back from a Nations Cup qualifier against Sierra Leone, killing all on board.
Poor crowd control has also proved catastrophic. In 2001, 126 spectators of a league derby game died at the Accra Sports Stadium in Ghana, a disaster that was followed in the same year by 43 lives being lost at Johannesburg's Ellis Park Stadium, where overcrowding led to a stampede between fans of arch-rival sides Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. Even as recently as 2009, 22 people died in a crush at the Houphouet-Boigny arena in the Ivory Coast, as Didier Drogba's men beat Malawi 5-0 in a World Cup qualifier.
However, despite the recent shooting in Cabinda adding to this lamentable list of calamities, calls by critics that the Nations Cup should be called off and furthermore that the World Cup now faces a greater security threat are misguided.
There have been many sporting events prior to the 2010 Nations Cup that have been blighted by adversity but not one has been aborted as a result.
Two people were killed in 1996 when a bomb exploded in Atlanta for example, but the American city went on to host the Olympic Games dubbed "The Celebration of the Century" in some style. Before this, nine Israeli athletes were kidnapped from the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany and subsequently killed by a terrorist group but the tournament of 1972 was not derailed.
More recently, in the 2007 Asian Cup, a suicide bomber killed around 50 fans in Baghdad who were celebrating Iraq's national soccer team's progress to the final. After much soul-searching the team decided to carry on, a choice that led to a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia and the capture of the title.
These events were not important because of their display of machismo or do-or-die bravery, but because the ethos and vision of the occasion did not succumb to the will of those who wanted to disrupt it with devastation.
The Angolan government have said they will reinforce security plans and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) are adamant the show must continue. Is it fair to ask the Nations Cup, an event that has reportedly seen $1 billion of resources poured into infrastructure construction in Angola, to be called off in a way previous tournaments have not?
If reports are to be believed, the Togo side themselves, led by captain Emmanuel Adebayor, wanted to continue to play before being flown out by their government.
As far as the World Cup is concerned, Danny Jordaan, the Chief Executive Officer for the 2010 World Cup Local Organizing Committee, has been defiant in his statements since the attack:
"I think the world understands that every country has its own military, police, intelligence resources and takes full responsibility for security within its own boundaries because they are separate and sovereign states," he said.
"We have just seen the attempted terror attacks on the United States. Unfortunately, it's a reality all over the world. Britain has its fair share of terror attacks, so does Spain and many countries. Clearly it's a global issue and we must understand it in that way. Of course, we cannot allow terrorists to win."
In other words, linking the attack in Angola to South Africa's security capability would be like canceling the 2006 World Cup in Germany because of the Madrid bombings in Spain. The two areas and events are clearly very different prospects. The "Rainbow Nation" has the same challenge facing it as any host of world football's biggest carnival, but with the resources of FIFA and the South African government fully behind the event, there is nothing to suggest those involved will be at any more risk than at the 2006 edition in Germany.
A belief that has prompted FIFA president Sepp Blatter to state to CAF president Issa Hayatou: "I have confidence in Africa and on the strength of this confidence we will together organize the flagship competition of world football in 2010."
Both CAF and FIFA have good reason to talk up the strength of their resolve and the need for confidence to remain in both tournaments, but agenda issues aside, is it ever right for the will of the terrorist disruptor to prevail at sporting events?
Before I go any further, I have to stress that, in my opinion, Patrick Vieira is, was and always will be a total footballing god.
Many a time I have seen with my own eyes the power and influence that the Frenchman can have on a game of football.
Vieira captained Arsenal's 'Invincibles' of 2003-2004; he has won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three Serie A titles, a World Cup and European Championship.
In fact, since scoring the winning penalty against Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup final, his final match for Arsenal, the Gunners have not won a single trophy.
That was Vieira's influence.
I chose the word 'was' carefully. Maybe Arsene Wenger did sell Vieira a year too early for Gunners' fans' liking, but he had become injury-prone and his all-action style of play was taking a toll on his body.
The slower nature of Italian football was always going to suit him more in his later years and Vieira has cleaned up in a less competitive league.
Yet Vieira's influence at Inter Milan has been getting less and less with the wily Jose Mourinho no longer reliant on his old war-horse.
So, with old Inter coach Roberto Mancini now at Manchester City, we see the return of Vieira Mark II.
Don't forget, City are the richest-club in Britain, possibly the world. They were willing to pay Kaka whatever he wanted to come to Manchester. They already have Gareth Barry, Nigel De Jong, Vincent Kompany and Stephen Ireland battling for a midfield place.
They can sign whoever they like, for whatever fee they want, yet Mancini swoops for a 33-year-old, deemed past his best by both Wenger and Mourinho (who incidentally have won five Premier League titles between them), on a measly six-month contract on a free transfer.
If rumors are to be believed Mancini was also sniffing around Juan Veron, another veteran who crashed and burned at both Manchester United and Chelsea.
Why is a multi-millionaire shopping at flea markets?
As I said before, 'Paddy' is a god and I will always love him for what he did at my beloved Arsenal, but he has had his day and the immovable colossus that he used to be, has gone.
Good luck Paddy, it's a great move for you. But all you City fans should be asking serious questions as to why the club who can get any player they want....can't.