October 20th, 2009
06:07 PM ET

Button shows that nice guys can win

So, nice guys can finish first after all. Jenson Button’s rise to the top of the pile in Formula One having provided the sport with its second straight British world champion and 10th British winner over all.

Jenson Button's F1 world title has proved that nice guys can come first in competitive sport.
Jenson Button's F1 world title has proved that nice guys can come first in competitive sport.

And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, except perhaps his Brawn GP team-mate Rubens Barrichello who, despite the disappointment of failing to win his debut world championship, was fulsome in his praise of his younger colleague and even loaned Button his private jet so that he could stay longer in Brazil to celebrate. What a guy!

But then it’s been obvious for most of the season that there is no “side” to either of the Brawn drivers.

Both are wholehearted competitors. Both dealt graciously with being number-two at previous teams –Button at Williams, Benetton, Renault, and BAR; and Barrichello at Ferrari; and both have conducted themselves without apparent ego or tantrums throughout this scandal-ridden season in which they've been treated by Brawn as equals.

As a result, I doubt there’s anyone out there who begrudges Button the ultimate success. Not even those who believe that he’d not have won the title if it hadn’t been for the rear-diffuser advantage the Brawn’s enjoyed at the start of the season that helped him win six of the first seven races. He didn't make the rules after all.

No, Button is cynic-proof. A genuine “Aw shucks” type champion that you just have to like.

Branded as an unfocussed underachiever after he failed to justify the hype that greeted his early days in the sport, he’s plugged away, without taking himself too seriously, and can now legitimately ask his critics, “How do you like me now?”

But, to my knowledge, he hasn't done that, preferring instead to modestly enjoy the applause, notably from a British public that's always loved his boyish charm, while re-committing himself Brawn GP, should they want him, despite the prospect of bigger and better offers.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a genuinely nice guy. And while nice isn't "sexy", it may be just what this troubled sport needs to get it back on the right track.

Posted by ,
Filed under:  Motorsport
October 20th, 2009
01:26 PM ET

South Africa right to ditch Santana

On the surface, it may seem a strange decision by the South Africa Football Association (SAFA), to sack the coach of their national football team just eight months short of hosting a World Cup.

A glum-looking Santana contemplates his World Cup fate with mascot Zakumi
A glum-looking Santana contemplates his World Cup fate with mascot Zakumi

Is now really the time to unsettle a team under pressure with the replacement of their leader? The answer is clear, but the context is all-important.

The significance of Africa staging an international tournament of such magnitude for the first time needs no restating, but among the greater concerns for local organizers and FIFA alike - on top of anxieties regarding security, accommodation and transportation - is the performance of the host side South Africa.

The momentum and ultimate success of such events rely on a groundswell of domestic support.  Without captivating the attention of the indigenous population - whether in South Korea and Japan, as in 2002, or the United States in 1990 -  there is a fear that games will be played to half-empty stadiums devoid of atmosphere and drama.

Aside from such a potentially embarrassing back-drop for sponsors and traveling fans alike, the financial implications of an early exit of Bafana Bafana could deprive a nation of an important focus for national unity.

Who can forget how the victory of the Springbok rugby team, who won the oval-balled version of the World Cup as hosts in 1995, affected a South Africa emerging from an era of apartheid?

Engagement with the tournament by those living in South Africa then, is a high priority - and the best way to ensure this is for the home side not to get knocked out early.

Unfortunately, for Joel Santana, there was too much riding on his capabilities and perceived under performance as a coach to let his tenure continue any further.

Despite a good showing at the recent Confederations Cup, under the Brazilian's leadership South Africa have dropped to their lowest world rank since 1994 (they are currently 85th).

In a squad where first-class talent is scarce, Santana's inability to coerce all-time record goalscorer Benni McCarthy back to the national cause could be seen as a crucial failure, his team were also accused of playing overly defensive football in an attempt to get results. The potential of pulse-racing performances come the World Cup seemed a distinct outside bet.

In 27 matches in-charge the 60-year-old was defeated 14 times, a statistic that would always have hacks sharpening their pencils considering his monthly wage of $175,000.

What backing remained vanished when eight defeats from his last nine games was followed by ill-judged comments to the press that he had "not been hired to win friendly fixtures." Maybe not, but why not inspire confidence with a win or two?

Santana may have also been wise to look at the history of his employers on accepting his first international coaching role. SAFA are no strangers to making bold decisions in the build up to major competitions: both former bosses Clive Barker and Carlos Queiroz were given the boot just months before the 1998 and 2002 tournaments respectively.

Santana had to go, but the question remains who will replace him? Whoever does takeover the reins of South Africa, the fans of Bafana Bafana will be hoping the drama off the pitch can be replaced with drama on the pitch come June.

Posted by ,
Filed under:  Football
October 20th, 2009
06:48 AM ET

Madrid's money man means business

Love him or loathe him, but you certainly can't ignore him. Florentino Perez is "Mr Real Madrid" and his name has and will always mean business.

Perez is the personification of Real Madrid's ambition to be the best team in the world.
Perez is the personification of Real Madrid's ambition to be the best team in the world.

On and off the pitch he has been a winner. This is a man who owns the largest construction company in Europe and has spent more money on football players than any other club owner in history.

This season's Real Madrid squad has been nicknamed the "Florenteam". There's a reason for that. Perez is the only reason why Real landed the talents of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and the rest of the player captures during the preseason.

The previous president, Jose Ramon Calderon, was there for over two years and he couldn't do it. He said he would bring in the stars, but failed. So what does Perez have that no-one else can boast? Well, he's got the name and he's got the curriculum vitae of one of the top businessmen in the world.

Right now, according to the latest estimates, Perez is worth just under two billion dollars while his construction company, Grupo ACS delivered a revenue of 16 billion dollars in 2008. Money is not a problem.

Even in these tough economic times, Florentino can walk up to any bank in Spain, ask for a loan, and be given what he wants. This is an X Factor few can compete with.

His aura helps. Having met him for the first time last month, it was clear that here was a man who knows what he wants and how to get it. He doesn't take anything less than the best. Just ask the six managers he hired and fired in his six years in charge at Real Madrid during his first term as president.

His total investment of $365 million this summer raised eyebrows, but he is convinced that it was the only way to put Real Madrid back in its rightful place (in his perspective) as the world's top club.

Now, he is hoping, or should I say expecting, the high-profile stars he has invested so many resources in, live up to their price tags and bring back some silverware to the Santiago Bernabeu.

Will they do it? Well, fortune is said to favor the brave, so would you bet against Real?

Posted by ,
Filed under:  Football