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.

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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.

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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?

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Filed under:  Football
October 16th, 2009
12:34 PM ET

A meeting with Rafa

I have to fess up. Sport is not my thing.

I don't mind watching baseball or cricket, even the occasional game of rugby or American football. So it's no surprise that my interview with Rafael Nadal was not something I was looking forward to.

To get a sense of what I was in for, the day before our one on one, I sat in on Nadal's media conference that all tennis players on the ATP have to endure. He seemed unhappy, really unhappy.

Short answers and mildly annoyed at the questions (to be fair some of the questions seemed annoying to me as well).

Rafael Nadal in action at the Shanghai Masters.
Rafael Nadal in action at the Shanghai Masters.

The next day, after much back and forth with the PR people, we were given the go ahead to set up on a practice court, Rafa as they call him, would be ready at 2.30pm.

We were told 30 minutes, and he doesn't really like talking about his injuries, personal matters too, and while not off limits, they would probably make him clam up. Oh and he struggles in English, because it's not his first language.

Just great – a thirty minute sit down, with one of the world's best tennis players and it was shaping as a bit of a yes no kind of thing, with not much to talk about.

I have to admit, I have a dislike for interviewing sportsman. It comes from my days as a sports reporter, twenty years ago.

When I failed to know how many times Laurie Daley of the Canberra Raiders had a degenerated disc, or Ricky Stewart hurt his groin, I was ostracized by my fellow journalists which may explain why I prefer Gaza to Old Trafford.

So there we were – two camera crews, me and my producer cooling our heels on court number 9. Two thirty came and went and no sign of "Rafa".

His fans had started turning up, hoping for a glimpse. As the time went by, I was thinking perhaps they were being overly optimistic. Finally he showed up, almost an hour late – I was already getting my excuses ready about how this show wouldn't work, and couldn't the get some previous episode with an Indian actor out of the library?

So, I asked my first question and it wasn't a disaster. I had a sense that Rafa didn't really understand everything that I was asking, but to his credit, he just kept on talking – powering through much like he does on the tennis court.

Another and another, and while at first he seemed a little shy and uneasy, by the end, a good 45 minutes later, he had shared some very interesting and personal details.

What were they you ask? You'll have to watch the show to find out.

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Filed under:  Tennis
October 15th, 2009
05:41 PM ET

Maradona and Beckham show their worth

With the line-up for the World Cup nearly complete, the discussion has begun among fans and media in the qualified nations as to who should go to the finals and who should miss out.

David Beckham still has a major role to play in England's bid to win the 2010 World Cup.
David Beckham still has a major role to play in England's bid to win the 2010 World Cup.

Top of that debating list are two superstars whose careers have transcended the game itself - Diego Maradona and David Beckham.

Let’s discuss Diego first. Should he lead Argentina in 2010 as manager, or will his lack of tactical nous be a liability to the Albicelestes in South Africa? Well, in my view, the answers are yes and yes.

When you hire Diego Maradona as manager, you get a football genius with a maverick personality who will do things his way or not at all.

No matter that he’s got no coaching pedigree or credentials, the Argentine Football Association decided that the risk was worth taking, so he got the job.

What followed in the qualifiers was what you’d expect from Diego, a rollercoaster ride that ultimately ended in success, as befits a rebel who consistently comes up smelling of roses.

You see, that’s the thing with Maradona, nothing he’s ever done has been conventional, yet he’s still among the most decorated and revered figures in football.

Look at the way he was as a player. A consummate ball hog who won games and titles, including the 1986 World Cup, virtually on his own!

Nobody would or could coach someone to play like that, because next to nobody would have the talent to make it work. Yet Diego did.

His self-confidence has taken him far. Add to that his passion and god-like charisma, and you can see why the Argentine FA is happy to take a punt despite the obvious risks of failure.

World Cups are not always won by the best team, but by the team with most flair, and Diego’s death-or-glory methods might at least give Argentina a shot.

While you expect the unexpected with Maradona, the reverse is true of David Beckham.

Here is Becks in a nutshell: a world-class crosser of the ball and dead-ball genius; a team player willing to play a defined role to orders; a patriotic whole-hearted competitor; a thoroughbred who’s now a bit of a carthorse; and a talismanic figure whose mere presence in the squad can inspire others to perform.

And, for me, the latter is the crux of the matter, and the main reason why Fabio Capello should put him on the plane to South Africa.

The World Cup is a long haul, and when a team needs lifting before, during or after a game, a seasoned veteran like 34-year-old Beckham can be invaluable.

That’s why Marcelo Lippi is considering 34-year-old Francesco Totti’s offer to return to international football for Italy’s World Cup challenge, why Lothar Matthaus played for Germany in 1998 aged 37, why Roger Milla played for Cameroon in 1990 and ’94 aged 38 and 42 respectively, and why Maradona himself was in the Argentine squad in ’94 aged 33, despite questionable fitness.

You take 23 players to a World Cup, so you can afford the luxury of a secret or not-so-secret weapon. And I believe Beckham should be England’s.

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Filed under:  Football
October 14th, 2009
10:00 AM ET

Messi holds the key to Maradona's survival

Maradona, despite his god-like footballing status in his homeland, has placed the national football team, an almost sacred entity in itself among the loyal fans of Argentinean soccer, in something of a mess.

Maradona must swallow his pride and play Messi in his best role.
Maradona must swallow his pride and play Messi in his best role.

Argentina have failed to reach the World Cup just once - after a draw against Peru in a qualifer for the 1970 finals in Mexico - and history nearly repeated itself this weekend.

Once again, a draw with Peru would have condemned Argentina to miss the party.

And things looked bleak when, through the driving wind and rain, Hernan Rengifo, a striker who plies his trade in Poland, drew the home side level with Maradona's men.

It looked a dagger blow for Diego's under-performing squad of millionaires and the end of his controversial spell in charge.

But then up cropped one of his selection gambles, Martin Palermo, a striker who played alongside his coach at Boca Juniors in Maradona’s retirement season 12 years ago, to tap in a dramatic winner in the fourth minute of injury time.

Maradona magic or just plain lucky given his messy situation?

Actions on the pitch aside, can you imagine what Maradona’s collective team of doctors were thinking for those three minutes it appeared Argentina would not win?

His blood pressure must have hit the roof and his memorable celebration, sliding full length on the muddy pitch give some idea of his relief at redemption.

And speaking of pressure – has it ever be more intense for Maradona or Argentina than ahead of the Wednesday evening kickoff in Montevideo against Uruguay?

Uruguay also have designs on clinching the fourth and final automatic World Cup spot from South America and are tough at home.

Ecuador, who are favorites to clinch fourth spot, play Chile who are already qualified in third place and may not be too bothered by the outcome.

On top of this, pundits are claiming that the best Argentina can hope for is to clinch fifth in the group and go into a playoff against a team from the CONCACAF region which they would be heavily favored to win.

But Argentina need to improve to even secure the draw they likely require as a minimum and they need their superstar Lionel Messi to step up to the plate.

The Spanish sports newspaper AS is reporting there is a rift between Maradona and his talisman, who is being deployed in a different position than he plays for Barcelona and is apparently disillusioned by the tactics employed by the coach.

Maradona must sort out this situation fast or he will be looking for a new job on Thursday morning, which would be a shame because whatever one's opinion of him, he is box office and the World Cup finals will be the poorer for his and Argentina's absence.

While a World Cup without arguably the best player in the world in Messi is surely unthinkable.

Some heads need to be banged together in the Argentina camp starting with the football icon and his legendary boss.

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Filed under:  Football
October 8th, 2009
08:53 AM ET

English Premier League International

The big bosses at FIFA and UEFA must have been spinning in their leather chairs when they got the news that the English Premier League has yet another foreign owner.

Carson Yeung, chairman of Grandtop International Holdings Limited and now the new owner of Birmingham City FC.
Carson Yeung, chairman of Grandtop International Holdings Limited and now the new owner of Birmingham City FC.

Messrs. Blatter and Platini, along with FIFA Vice-President, Jack Warner, who wants to place a financial cap on EPL teams, have been huge critics of the overseas impact on the Premier League, which is now like the United Nations on and off the field.

Carson Yeung’s takeover of Birmingham City football club means half of the EPL’s 20 teams are now foreign owned. And, with five of the managers hailing from overseas, and an average of 13 foreign players in each first team squad, the league is statistically no longer English. My question is – so what?

FIFA’s boast is that football is a global game with a universal language, so is it not desirable that the world’s blue riband league is blind to nationality?

Surely, no-one watching a football match in any country considers the origins of the players and coaches? They are just concerned about the result.

For example, my team, Arsenal, is predominantly non English, but when I watch the Gunners all I see is the red and white of their shirts, not the black, blue, maroon, green, and embossed gold of the players' passports. It is irrelevant!

Similarly, as long as the owner has the club’s best interests at heart and does not meddle in team affairs, why should I care where he or she comes from?

His only obligation is to provide the cash to bankroll my team. And, the last time I checked, mega rich is mega rich regardless of whether your billions are in pounds, dollars, rubles, or riyals.

Of course, there are those who argue that the influx of foreigners to the English game has taken away its national character.

However, I don’t think that’s born out in practice, either in terms of the club's culture or, more importantly, in the way the teams perform.

I have lost count of the number of foreign opponents who have talked about the English way of playing, or the number of foreign imports who talk about adapting to the English style.

There is an English way – extremely high tempo, very physical, relentlessly competitive, and that is what gives the league its character.

So, in my book, there is no downside to the EPL’s cosmopolitan look. In fact, as long as the integrity of those involved remains intact, it is the perfect model because it blurs the borders.

And, let’s face it, if other leagues had been as progressive late in the last century, they would be reaping the same rewards as the English, and they would be loving it!

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Filed under:  Football
October 2nd, 2009
03:29 PM ET

Formula One musical chairs begins in earnest

With three races left in the Formula One season the musical chairs have begun.

Alonso has signed a three year deal with Ferrari sparking off a host of potential driver changes for next year.
Alonso has signed a three year deal with Ferrari sparking off a host of potential driver changes for next year.

So far, the exchange of drivers will see Fernando Alonso of Spain switch from Renault to Ferrari next season in a three-year deal said to be worth in the region of $36 million to the two-time world champion.

At present, he is due to spearhead the Italians' 2010 title challenge alongside Felipe Massa, provided the Brazilian sufficiently recovers from the life-threatening head injury he sustained this season.

Of course, that means there is no place at Ferrari for Kimi Raikkonen, who won the title for them in 2007.

The Finn is apparently reluctant to leave, but the blow could be softened if, as is rumored, he gets to join Lewis Hamilton at McLaren next year.

All this is very interesting, as the teams start forming their ranks for what will be a very important season for the sport next year, when Formula One will surely hope to banish the memories of another scandal-ridden campaign.

However, just for the sake of argument, how about this for a radical idea to shake things up even further.

Why not make the drivers independent in future? By that I mean, sign them to the FIA but not to any specific team, and make them race in a different car at each grand prix?

As you know, there is an on-going discussion as to whether it is the driver or the car that makes the difference.

And, while it is obviously a combination of the two, it was interesting to hear Lewis Hamilton describe his title defense with McLaren this year as a “non-starter”, simply because his car was not up to scratch.

Here is how it would work. Drivers would test in all the cars during the off-season when the various mechanics and designers would do everything needed to get the dimensions and set-ups as close to ideal as possible for each man.

Come the start of the season, the drivers would then compete for each team in a season-long rotation.

To start the process at the opening grand prix, the last place finisher from the previous season’s driver’s championship would be first behind the wheel for the reigning constructor champions, and so on down the pecking order.

Newcomers to the F1 circuit would take the position in the order of the driver they replaced.

It is a similar idea to the worst teams in the NFL from the previous season getting the first pick in the draft for the following season in order to promote more parity, at least on paper.

Obviously, there would be a lot of technical issues to overcome, and I am interested to hear your views on the impracticalities.

However, some of the plusses would be that the potential for corruption and cheating would be reduced, as no driver would be affiliated to any one team.

It would provide some of the smaller teams, who currently just make up the numbers in Formula One, with a major boost, as a star driver might actually make them competitive.

At the end of the season, we’d not only know which is the best car, as the constructors championship would still exist, but also who is the best driver per se, not who had the best technology behind him.

What do you think?

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Filed under:  Motorsport
October 2nd, 2009
10:00 AM ET

Will IOC members vote with heads or hearts?

COPENHAGEN, Denmark - The bid cities are making their final presentations to members of the International Olympic Committee right now and you can feel the tension and the sense of anticipation in the air.

U.S. President Barack Obama is in Copenhagen to pitch for Chicago's bid. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
U.S. President Barack Obama is in Copenhagen to pitch for Chicago's bid. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Around me, in the media hub of the Bella Center, are hundreds of journalists from all over the world, most of them from the countries which are vying for the Games. Every now and then I hear one of their reporters live on air. It really feels like I am in the eye of the storm here.

Everyone has been speculating about who is going to win. There are four really strong candidates and the chances are the host city for the 2016 Games will not be decided in the first round of voting. This, my friends, is going down to the wire.

Who will be the final two bids standing? Well, in my opinion, it will come down to a duel between Rio de Janeiro and Chicago. The Brazilian city could make history by becoming the first in South America to host the Games.

Sport in this region has developed a lot in the last decade, and the fact that the economic situation has also improved means that this continent is finally ready to receive the Olympics.

With Chicago, the IOC knows it has a safe bet. Three American cities have already hosted the Games, and the United States has the experience and know-how needed to organize a great event.

Furthermore, the money the IOC could make from TV deals with American networks will exceed any amount received from channels from other countries. And we all know money talks, right? So it will basically come down to whether the IOC members vote with their hearts of their heads.

The heart calls for Rio, the head for Chicago.

What about the others? Well Madrid has a shot. A realistic shot. Over 70 percent of Olympic venues are already in place or have started to be built in the Spanish capital so from an infrastructure standpoint, it is a very strong bid. Its main problem is the fact that the previous Games will also be held in Europe. if London were not organizing the 2012 Olympics, then Madrid could be the frontrunner.

As far as Tokyo is concerned, this is a long shot. The bid has lacked passion and the last media activities here in Copenhagen have reflected that. The fact the 2008 Games were in Beijing is also a disadvantage.

Its strength is the green and environmentally-friendly approach. The Japanese city has presented a plan for an Olympic stadium run entirely on solar energy.

So the scene is set. As the presentations are made, we follow them with great interest. Who will win? Watch this space...

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Filed under:  Olympics
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