October 31st, 2009
04:33 PM ET

Footballers can't spit in face of swine flu threat

To spit or not to spit. That is the question in the Premier League right now, where the appearance of swine flu among the players and staff of Blackburn, Manchester City, and Bolton, and the potential for spreading the H1N1 virus by gobbing on the pitch during games has Britain’s Health Protection agency salivating with rage.

Masked Paris Saint-Germain players head home after an inter-squad outbreak of swine flu causes their game with Marseille to be postponed.
Masked Paris Saint-Germain players head home after an inter-squad outbreak of swine flu causes their game with Marseille to be postponed.

“Spitting is disgusting at all times.” said an HPA spokesman. “Footballers, like the rest of us, wouldn't spit indoors so they shouldn't do it on the football pitch."

A keen observation indeed. I can’t remember the last time I hawked up on the carpet. But then the most physical activity I resort to in the living room is reaching for the nachos while I’m watching a game, so the demand to expectorate (the technical term for spitting), is not really there.

When I played the game I spat though. We all did. It was the natural reaction to a lung-busting surge up the wing, a 40-yard track back for a last ditch tackle or a dodgy decision by the ref (you could spit in dissent in my heyday without getting a yellow card because yellow cards hadn’t been invented). Better out than in, that was the motto back then, and we thought no more of spreading disease via a loogey than we did of Chelsea winning the league title - it just wasn’t going to happen.

But, of course, times have changed. Chelsea now have a couple of Premiership crowns in the cabinet, and the fluid nature of the game is giving the medics cause for concern. Never mind that managers such as Mark Hughes of Manchester City have dismissed the threat posed to footballers from the virus as trivial due to their heightened level of fitness. No matter that Chelsea boss Carlo Ancellotti appears to believe that hot milk and red wine are an adequate substitute for the H1N1 vaccine. The fact remains that those with even greater medical knowledge than Sparky and the Italian bon vivant are adamant - phlegm kills, or at least can make you very sick.

Of course, that’s no laughing matter. So what is the EPL going to do about it? Well, they can discourage spitting, but they can’t really make it an offence because it’s so ubiquitous in football that you’d end up with 22 yellow and red cards every game ... or maybe they ought to introduce a green card!

They could postpone matches involving clubs where swine flu has been diagnosed, but they’ve already said they won’t do that (a measure derided as "irresponsible" by Blackburn boss Sam Allardyce.)

They could make players wear masks, (which sounded silly until I saw Mario Balotelli of Inter Milan playing with what looked like a scarf round his neck, at which point I realized anything goes.)

In fact, I’m sure greater minds than mine could come up with a myriad of measures to reduce the risks. But, in the end, a lot of it will surely come down to luck. Because, despite its air of invincibility, football is as powerless as the rest of us to halt the spread of the virus. So I ask you - will a few gobs of spit make a significant difference?

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Filed under:  Football
October 30th, 2009
06:02 PM ET

Adebayor deserves his second chance

Most football fans in the UK don't rate Emmanuel Adebayor as a person.
Many consider the Togolese striker to be a mercenary who signed for Manchester City just for the money.

Adebayor is challenged by former team-mate Alexandre Song.
Adebayor is challenged by former team-mate Alexandre Song.

His actions in a recent Premier League game against his former employers did not do him any favors either.

Adebayor provoked Arsenal fans by effusively celebrating a goal scored against them, and also kicked out at Robin Van Persie, later receiving a three-match ban.

Now as we know and should never forget, there are always two sides of the story. I had a chance to hear Emmanuel's version of events last week during an interview in Manchester.

The first impression I got was that he was genuinely hurt by the way Arsenal treated him in the summer.

When Arsene Wenger told him he wouldn't play this season and that the club had agreed to sell him to Manchester City, initially he didn't want to leave.

He felt unwanted and under-appreciated. Following a couple of meetings with City representatives Adebayor was eventually persuaded that the club had high ambitions and that he would be a big part of them.

That is when he agreed to go. Not for the money, but because he felt wanted.

As far as the game with Arsenal is concerned, Emmanuel told me about how Arsenal players did not want to shake his hand in the tunnel and how their fans sang about his family.

How they insulted his mother and father, the people that always meant everything to him. He regretted his goal celebration, but said it was the only way he had to reply to the supporters.

He also apologized to Van Persie and wishes he had never kicked out at his former teammate.

Adebayor knows he made mistakes. He just wants a second chance. Every person deserves that.

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Filed under:  Football
October 29th, 2009
10:31 AM ET

Agassi's mistake should be forgiven

Andre Agassi’s revelation that he took crystal meth in 1997 was shocking, yes, but it won’t tarnish his legacy.

Agassi's achievements will not be tarnished by his autobiography's revelation.
Agassi's achievements will not be tarnished by his autobiography's revelation.

When you think of Agassi, do you remember the hairy pony-tailed youngster who was ranked 141st in the world, or does the bald happily married father-of-two come to mind? A man who won eight grand slam titles, the rare career grand slam, who made THAT speech at the U.S Open, and who has done more off court than he even did on it?

I suspect it’s the latter.

Agassi always had the look of a tortured genius in his younger days. He was brilliant, yet inconsistent. He hated the grass of Wimbledon, yet fell in love with it after ironically winning his first major title there in ’92. He became the closest thing to a tennis Hollywood superstar by marrying actress Brooke Shields, and then fell into relative obscurity with an alarming slump in form. We now know why.

That could have marked the end of his career, instead it was just the beginning. He has done for tennis, what only few others have managed, and I for one, am prepared to look past his former misdemeanors. Can you?

What is worrying about the revelation is how easily he appears to have got away with a positive drugs test. One now wonders who else has drug skeletons in their closets.

Looking Ahead

Though the year-end ranking rather fell in her lap, Serena Williams is the rightful world number one.

 By winning two grand slams this year she has proved she’s the best female player in the world, and even accounting for her bizarre outburst in New York, we tennis fans must thank Serena for what really could have been a blah year on the whole for women’s tennis.

Whether she’ll be at the summit next year remains to be seen. Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters’s return make the prospect of 2010 an exciting one, and provided she’s fit, Maria Sharapova will surely also be in the mix.

Talking of next year, there’ll be far fewer Marat Safin soundbites to enjoy. He retires having won two grand slam titles but arguably not living up to his massive potential. Still though, the fiery Russian provided us with plenty of entertainment over the years and will definitely be missed. I suspect he won’t miss us too much in return!

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Filed under:  Tennis
October 28th, 2009
06:21 PM ET

Agassi, the latest to shatter the sport illusion

What was Andre Agassi thinking? Just three years ago he retires as a sporting legend, one of the greatest tennis players of all time and a role model for the next generation of professionals.

Andre Agassi's legacy could be severely tarnished following his recent drug-taking revelations.
Andre Agassi's legacy could be severely tarnished following his recent drug-taking revelations.

He’s married to sexy Steffi Graf and they have two children – a boy and a girl. They have no financial worries and, to many of us, it seems like the perfect lifestyle.

So why confess that, twelve years ago, you regularly snorted an illegal drug and then lied to the tennis authorities about it?

Agassi made it clear that he was happy for the world to hear the whole story after an exhibition match in Macau this weekend, but I think he’ll be less excited about the reaction from tennis fans and the wider public.

Glancing through internet forums and social networking sites it is clear that genuine shock has been created by the news.

It’s significant the admission has come in Agassi’s autobiography, released in time for the lucrative Christmas market. It is hard to claim that you are simply coming clean while charging fans to read that truth.

The excerpt was published in a British newspaper alongside stories about how tough Agassi’s father had been on him. However, the American may find sympathy hard to come by.

He writes that he took crystal meth because he was “in a bad way”. There he was, sitting in his luxurious Las Vegas house, a famous and wealthy sportsman, less than a year after winning Olympic gold and shortly before marrying beautiful actress Brooke Shields. Yeah, tough life.

Agassi is currently an ambassador for luxury watchmaker Longines and the company has told CNN they will stick by him. They admire his honesty and say we all make mistakes.

While that is true, Agassi’s lapse wasn’t a one-off. He continued taking the drug for many months and then lied to the ATP when he tested positive. He told the tour that he had accidentally ingested the narcotic after drinking from a spiked drink belonging to his assistant.

With hindsight, although the ATP followed the correct procedure of investigation concerning the incident, how can we have faith in a system that Agassi managed to circumvent with such ease? Possibly, like the rest of Agassi’s admirers – until now – they couldn’t believe such a respected player would make such a big mistake.

No doubt the ATP will be watching the reaction to Agassi’s revelations carefully. While we have all been jaded by the quantity of drugs in sport stories this one may yet gain some momentum.

If Agassi had admitted his drug use at the time he was facing a three month ban. Instead, he played on. Unsuccessfully. He slumped to his worst ever ranking of 141 in the world – but he still won matches and had an impact on fellow players’ careers while receiving artificial and illegal stimulation.

Should Agassi repay prize money? Or compensate tournament sponsors?

However, it is equally likely the controversy will quickly die down. If that happens it would just be another step along the road to Apathy City – where we stop caring whether or not our sporting heroes are on the straight and narrow.

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Filed under:  Tennis
October 27th, 2009
06:13 PM ET

Come-uppance for Fergie but refs are not infallible

The fact that Manchester United boss, Alex Ferguson is being brought to book over his comments on Premier League referee, Alan Wiley, will be seen as justice by many in England.

Ferguson is facing a touchline ban after his comments about Alan Wiley.
Ferguson is facing a touchline ban after his comments about Alan Wiley.

Fergie, for all his great qualities as a coach, is a serial baiter of officials and may be due his come-uppance.

However, while I agree that launching a public attack on a referee’s fitness was probably not the way to go, I can’t help but baulk at the notion that referees are untouchable.

Look at the facts, players, managers, coaches, chairman, directors, FIFA, UEFA, and every domestic governing body in the game are all subject to public scrutiny and questioning by the media every day of the week.

What’s more, the criticism is often personal, sometimes descends into ridicule, and, occasionally smacks of a witch hunt. Yet these people are expected to take it all with a pinch of salt.

But criticize a referee, and it’s a whole different ball game. Now don’t get me wrong. I think the match officials have an incredibly tough job, and the “Respect Campaign” introduced last year was a good and necessary thing in order to stop ref’s being bullied by players and managers.

But while I think a referee’s authority should not be undermined, I don’t think they should be considered infallible.

Almost every game you see contains mistakes, and there should be some legitimate system by which the teams involved can voice their criticism, because even one wrong decision can cost a club dearly in terms of cash and lost trophies.

Furthermore, when a referee has a calamitous game or is consistently bad, the public response of the various refereeing bodies often appears to be a shrug of the shoulders. Why? There are referees associations. There are assessors at every match. If questions are being asked about an individual’s performance and if punishments are being meted-out, why can’t we know about them?

Accountability and transparency is expected in all other areas of football, so why not in the referees fraternity? After all, as Fergie might argue, - respect should work both ways.

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Filed under:  Football
October 26th, 2009
09:26 PM ET

Rossi and Loeb prove their superiority

By one of those strange coincidences that happen so often in sport, both Valentino Rossi and Sebastien Loeb wrapped up their respective world titles on the same day, making no mistake with the sort of assured performances which have marked their remarkable careers.

Rossi celebrates completing the ninth world title victory of his career.
Rossi celebrates completing the ninth world title victory of his career.

MotoGP ace Rossi was winning his seventh title in motorcycling's premier class and his second in succession, Loeb made it sixth straight world rallying crowns, an all-time record.

Both had to endure significant challenges during the course of the season, Loeb from Ford Focus ace Mikko Hirvonen, Rossi from his Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo.

And both showed their incredible winning mentality when it mattered the most, with Loeb having to relegate Hirvonen to second place in the season-ending Wales Rally GB to leapfrog the Finn in the final standings.

Rossi wrapped up his title with a race to spare, needing to finish fourth in Sepang to clinch it, he claimed the final podium spot behind Australian Casey Stoner, keepng Lorenzo one place behind him.

It is a feature of great champions that when the question is asked they come up with the answer and both Rossi and Loeb have solved puzzles a plenty to stay at the top.

But are they the greatest of all-time in their respective sports ?

Statistically, Loeb has few peers, with his 54 wins a world rally record, but questions have to be asked about the overall competitiveness of the championship in recent years with this year's title race effectively a two-horse race between the Citroen and Ford teams.

Rallying fans may well point to the merits of the great Finns Tommi Makinen, Juha Kankunen and Marcus Gronholm while Spain's Carlos Sainz had few peers. Throw into the mix the late and much-missed flying Scot Colin McRae and there is room for much-debate.

Who do you think is the greatest rally driver of all time ?

In the same vein, Rossi has been a winning machine with nine world championships from 125 cc to MotoGP, but his fellow-Italian Giacomo Agostini is the all-time record holder with 122 grand prix wins and 15 world championships.

Australian Mick Doohan won five successive world 500cc championships and was totally dominant in the 1990s, while flamboyant British ace Mike Hailwood
won world titles and TT races on the Isle of Man at will during his incredible career.

So who is the ultimate maestro on two wheels ?

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Filed under:  Motorsport
October 25th, 2009
05:06 PM ET

Title race is wide open after Liverpool win

Just when the critics were writing them off, Liverpool produced a performance of such passion and intensity it left defending English Premier League champions Manchester United looking very much second best.

A fired up Benitez inspired his men to a superb win over Manchester United.
A fired up Benitez inspired his men to a superb win over Manchester United.

The 2-0 scoreline at Anfield did not flatter Rafa Benitez's battlers who were desperate to avoid a fifth straight defeat which would have left the Spaniard staring down the barrel.

For sure, United can feel a little hard done by that Jamie Carragher was not dismissed for cynically pulling back his old teammate Michael Owen as he chased a late equalizer, but they did not deserve a share of the spoils after a lackluster display.

Going into the match, all the questions were over Liverpool's supposed frailties and over-reliance on Steven Gerrard and the magnificent Fernando Torres.

By the finish, United's own weaknesses were exposed, with the below-par form of Rio Ferdinand, exposed for the Torres opener for Liverpool, and their over-reliance on Wayne Rooney, who for once looked off the pace and received little support from Dimitar Berbatov.

Only the late introduction of Owen, who set up Antonio Valencia for a shot which thumped the crossbar, gave edge to their attack and the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez may well be a factor by season's end.

Liverpool could even do without the injured Gerrard but with inspired by their fanatical fans, rightly described by Benitez as their "12th man" showed enough to suggest that they will be a factor in the title race.

And what a title race we have in prospect, surely the most open for many seasons?

Chelsea have taken advantage to lead the standings after 10 rounds, but United will not give up their crown easily while Arsenal are looking a growing threat.

Liverpool are established members of the top four, but throw into the mix the financial muscle of Manchester City and the nuisance value of the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa and it has all the ingredients of a classic season.

Who do you think will emerge as the Premier League top dogs come next May ?

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Filed under:  Football
October 24th, 2009
10:13 AM ET

Trying to tame Tiger

There was a time when Tiger Woods, by comparison in the build-up to his appearance in stroke play events, never really rated a mention as a big threat in the Ryder Cup –- his performance was always below par in team events.

Tiger Woods finally became a team player in the Presidents Cup.
Tiger Woods finally became a team player in the Presidents Cup.

The discussion was mostly about why he hadn’t clicked in the team format.

Not anymore! He whacked the Internationals in the Presidents Cup by pocketing maximum points – or going 5 and O as they say at the bar in the clubhouse.

I was at a Ryder Cup "Year to Go" function in October at the Celtic Manor where European captain Colin Montgomerie and USA captain Corey Paven shared some time together to asses the course.

They spoke a day after the USA retained the Presidents Cup and of course Tiger’s name came up.

“Yeah that’s great news for us that he’s finally worked out the team game,” Monty said with a wry smile.

“It’s not a good thought when you know that they have to get 14 and a half points to win and Tiger already has 5 in the bag before you tee off.”

You might take that as a defeatist attitude but I think Monty will be happy to let everyone focus on talking Tiger up, while I don’t think he’ll be too concerned for several reasons.

Even if Tiger is in top form the circumstances at the Celtic Manor will be vastly different than the set up in San Francisco for the Presidents Cup.

The obvious is the crowd – we know it will be in favor of Europe, that’s a big factor on its own. From what I have seen the layout of the Celtic Manor will make for a cauldron atmosphere because of the elevation around various holes. The crowd will have a bigger hand in this result than other European Ryder Cup venues.

Throw in more variables like many European players knowing the Celtic Manor course as its featured as a venue for the Wales Open before.

And then throw in a dose of some Welsh weather. In October next year it will be cold, often very cold and probably wet, not something US players generally deal with or like a lot.

It takes a lot to tame Tiger, Monty knows that, but he also knows he’s got a few more things going in his favour being on home soil.

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Filed under:  Golf
October 22nd, 2009
02:58 PM ET

Pellegrini skating on thin ice at Real

I recently made a trip to Madrid to interview several of Real's players and club president Florentino Perez. All of them talked about how expectations were raised this season because of the investment made over the summer. Perez especially stressed the importance of the club becoming a contender for the Champions League title, a competition they haven't won since 2000.

Manuel Pellegrini is under pressure to remedy Real Madrid's recent shortcomings.
Manuel Pellegrini is under pressure to remedy Real Madrid's recent shortcomings.

Well, they didn't look like contenders on Wednesday night, did they? Real lost to a Milan team which had won just three of nine games this season and whose first XI would have been great five years ago but now, honestly, looks like largely like a group of has-beens. The average age of the side Leonardo sent out at the Bernabeu was 30.8.

Now the excuses have already started rolling out of the Bernabeu. After the defeat to Milan, coach Manuel Pellegrini said he needed time to build his team. He added that he thought the game wasn't that bad. Well, the press thought otherwise and in response to that comment, Marca asked, on its front page, "What game were you watching?"

It may be too early for alarm bells, but Pellegrini won't get much time to get it right. I can guarantee that. In his last stint as Real president, Florentino had six managers in six years. He expects the best, always, and has no problems pulling the trigger when it comes to firing coaches.

So what is going wrong? For starters, the defense isn't good enough. Pepe is and has always been overrated, so much so that with Portugal he doesn't even play at center-back sometimes - Carlos Queiroz uses him in midfield. His heading is poor and his concentration erratic. Neither Marcelo nor Drenthe are great left-backs. They are both great at going forward, but don't have the necessary discipline to track back everytime the team loses possession. Sergio Ramos is OK but I still think he is better as a center-back than a right-back. Raul Albiol is solid, but not the leader the Real backline needs.

In other words, I expect Real to concede bags of goals this season. They will score them too, but Pellegrini might need to think about playing with two defensive midfielders to protect a shaky defence. This means Kaka could be forced into a wide position. Curiously, Madrid had a similar problem during the first instalment of the Galacticos. Zinedine Zidane had to be dragged out to the left so the manager could fit all his stars in the team, while at the same time ensuring some solidity in the center of the park.

Over to you, Mr. Pellegrini. Maybe you can convince Florentino to buy a world-class defender in January. If you make it that far... 

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Filed under:  Football
October 21st, 2009
06:24 PM ET

Benitez only has himself to blame

The knives are firmly being sharpened for Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez at the moment with the English Premier League giants in the middle of a nightmare period both on and off the pitch.

Rafael Benitez has looked an increasingly desperate figure on the touchline this season.
Rafael Benitez has looked an increasingly desperate figure on the touchline this season.

Liverpool go into Sunday’s home clash against Manchester United in their worse run since 1987 – and four defeats in a row could easily become five should the Reds lose to their bitter rivals, a scenario not witnessed at Anfield for 56 years.

The glory days of that remarkable Champions League triumph in 2005 seem a distance away for Benitez and the Spaniard’s body language has become more and more agitated and irritable as a crippling injury list, loss of form from experienced players and new-found defensive uncertainty have all combined to give Liverpool a distinctly fragile appearance in recent weeks.

Suddenly every aspect of the club is being scrutinized, from the continued boardroom travails involving unpopular American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to Benitez’s transfer policy which has seen him sign over 70 players since taking charge of the club five years ago.

Benitez has moaned about his squad size in recent weeks but, from where I am looking, the Liverpool squad appears as big, if not bigger, than most of their rivals’ squads.

Size is not the issue, quality is, and it is my firm belief that Benitez only has himself to blame for the current mess his club are in.

The accusation that Liverpool rely too heavily on superstars Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard is true, but it is nonsense to say they are the only class players at Benitez’s disposal.

The likes of Yossi Benayoun, Javier Mascherano, Albert Reira, Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher, Glen Johnson and Pepe Reina are all top quality, but the truth is the second tier of players are simply not good enough.

Who scores the goals when Torres is absent?...David Ngog?..Andrei Voronin?...How the Liverpool faithful must yearn for Robbie Keane, Peter Crouch or Emile Heskey, all experienced Premier League strikers jettisoned by Benitez.

Who provides the creativity in midfield following the sale of Xabi Alonso?...Lucas? or will the still injured Alberto Aquilani provide the spark so sadly lacking when he eventually makes his debut?

And who plays in the full-back positions?..Glen Johnson?, Fabio Aurelio?, Philip Degen? Andrea Dossena? Martin Kelly? Emiliano Insua? Jamie Carragher?...How many full-backs does a club need?

I do not expect Liverpool to beat United on Sunday, although a draw might be enough to instil some much-needed confidence…

Either way, they have already lost four league games, double last year’s total, and their title hopes will be extinguished should defeat number five occur at the weekend…

Is Benitez’s job safe?...For the moment he won’t be going, especially as the ink on a lucrative recent five-year contract is barely dry..

But if Liverpool fail to finish in the top four, don’t expect the dour Spaniard to be at the helm next season, and, you know what, he’ll only have himself to blame.

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Filed under:  Football
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