The injury to England and Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney, sustained in his club's first leg European Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich on Tuesday, has caused panic attacks and palpitations to football fans the world over.
There once was a time when it was only fanatics of the game who would react with hysteria to such seemingly frivolous news (it is just a twisted joint after all, there were no fatalities) but in today's globalized economy - where football is big business and the soccer soap opera captivates the interest of millions around the world - such an event becomes a major deal.
Rooney not playing is a big problem to a number of parties with vested interests. Firstly, the Liverpool-born hit-man has been in prolific form this season - his goal against Bayern was his 34th of the current campaign - a feat that has helped his club side lead the English Premier League, capture a domestic cup and progress to the latter stages of the Champions League.
Alex Ferguson's men play Chelsea on Saturday in a crucial title decider that Rooney will almost certainly watch from the sidelines, he also may struggle to be fit for Bayern's visit to Old Trafford where United need to overturn a 2-1 deficit to stay in the European competition. United fans, consequently, must be worried.
His performances for England helped his nation qualify in some style for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa which kicks off in June; he is the talisman of the squad, Fabio Capello's best player. For England fans, the sight of their most talented footballer getting injured before a major tournament is familiar ground (see David Beckham circa 2002 and Rooney in 2006), hence doom and gloom is already descending on a country well-versed in big-tournament disappointment.
The typically hyped-up British press carried headlines including "Pray" (The Sun), "In Rooins" (The Daily Mirror), and "Roo in Crock Shock Scare" (The Daily Star) - which begs the questions what will the headline writers do during the World Cup without such ripe material to work from?
The 24-year-old must wait on the outcome of a scan to understand how severe the twisted right ankle, which forced him to limp out of the game, is and how long it will keep him out of action. You can bet that domestic broadcasters will report on every tiny update of Rooney's recovery, such is the perceived interest from a captive audience.
Sponsors too will be sweating on the scan results. Rooney represents Coca-Cola and Nike to name but two, and millions of dollars are riding on the exposure Rooney would have given his sponsors' branding and products in South Africa.
Football may still be a team game on the pitch but Rooney's injury and the global reaction to it is just the latest example of how some elite stars of soccer have a gravity all of their own. Let's hope that Crisitano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi avoid a similar fate.
When is a dream job not a dream job? When it’s not fulfilling your dreams. Andy Murray’s startling admission that he no longer enjoys playing tennis might be construed as a knee-jerk reaction to his early exit from the Sony Ericsson Open, but I prefer to think of it as one the most honest admissions from a sports star that I’ve ever heard.
But how can he be sick of tennis? He’s living the dream. A highly paid wealthy young man, regularly ranked among the top four in the world, who travels the globe being feted wherever he goes, staying in the best hotels in the best locations, and his only obligation is to hit a furry ball over a net more often than the other guy. What’s not to love? Well, on the surface, I’d agree with you. From the outside, the life of a top-class tennis player does seem like a fantasy camp. But as one who’s glimpsed it from the inside, as a journalist not a player you understand, I can somewhat appreciate how these superstars might become disenchanted from time to time.
Here at World Sport for example, we often conduct interviews via satellite. But what you don’t see at home is the interviewee doing a string of interviews before and after ours, with each one needing to appear fresh despite the fact that they’re being asked similar questions over and over again. A recent interview with the Williams sisters springs to mind in which everything about their off-camera body language suggested they didn't want to be there. To their credit, that didn't show on camera, and that's what matters. But it did offer a glimpse into their world, where there's a never ending need to be “on”.
Then there’s life on the road, where, never mind the travel and the desire to climb into bed after a long flight, the players often have to get down to business right away, as matches and practice times are obviously arranged in sync with the locals not the visitors. Can you imagine how wearing that must be?
Plus, there’s the routine of it all. Apart from the training, and I’ve heard of few players who like training, there’s the sheer number of tournaments you have to play. Sure, every player can get up for the slams and some of the Masters events, but they are not your bread and butter. And I can’t believe your umpteenth trip to the "Back of Beyond Open" can be that inspiring however much you’re being paid. But, like the office worker dragging himself out of bed and onto the subway on a Monday morning, you have to deliver because that’s what you bought into by going pro.
Finally, there’s the constant need to explain yourself. If you win, why did you win? How do you feel about winning? Can you win again? What about Roger, Rafa, Novak etc. Can they be beaten? How can you beat them? Yada yada, yada. And it gets even worse if you’re defeated. In my experience, a post-match news conference is like self-flagellation for the loser, requiring a player to beat themselves up in public and explain every missed step. “So, Andy, how do you feel after that triple bagel?” Aaargh!
Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the price of success and fame has to be paid. But I can’t help but sympathize with Andy when he says that he’s “temporarily” fallen out of love with the whole shebang. He's not a miner digging coal, of course, but tennis is his job, and it’s impossible to love your job all the time. Well, apart from my job that is. Now I AM living the dream. Except that……well, maybe that’s best left for another time.
To say that Argentina's Lionel Messi has been in scintillating form of late for club side Barcelona is an understatement up there with U.S. health care being a tricky issue.
His coach Pep Guardiola has run out of superlatives to describe him, while club president Joan Laporta claims he is the greatest to have ever played soccer. A bold statement maybe, but recent statistics show why those who have been lucky enough to watch the diminutive destroyer of defenses in Spain have been seduced into lavishing praise on the attacker.
The reigning World Player of the Year's goal-scoring form this season has been staggering. The 22-year-old has already beaten his total from last year of 23 goals - a season in which his team completed an unprecedented capture of three trophies (the domestic title, domestic cup and the European Champions League) - with 11 games left of the campaign.
The completion of his third hat-trick of the season against Real Zaragoza on Sunday, his second in as many league matches, takes Messi's tally to 11 goals from his last five appearances and means he is currently averaging more than a goal a game.
However, it is not just the number of goals he has scored but the manner in which he has helped his team to victory. In his last three appearances Messi has bamboozled and obliterated his opponents with a poetic mix of pace, poise and panache reminiscent of Diego Maradona in his prime.
Impressive, but how do we know if he is the greatest player ever? It is far easier to tell once the career of a player is over rather while it is still in full swing, so there is distance enough from the achievements for some kind of perspective and analysis. To call it now is tough; much depends on Argentina's performance at the forthcoming World Cup and Messi's role in their success.
There have been many revered players of the game - George Best, Ryan Giggs, George Weah, Eric Cantona to mention but a few - but to be placed above Maradona and Pele in the pantheon of greats, Messi must surely match their heroics on the biggest stage of all.
What set these two South American soccer stars apart from the myriad of contenders was how they focused their awesome talents to deliver when the pressure was at its most intense and how they etched their name in history by helping their nations become world champions through creative and compelling football (Maradona with Argentina in 1986 and Brazil's Pele in 1958, 1962 and 1970).
Messi certainly has the ability to reach these heights, but it is the delivery of such success that would seal his greatness.
Ok, so the quarterfinals of the European Champions League have been - via a typically protracted, media-driven ceremony - drawn. We now know which powerhouses of soccer will clash, and the path that must be navigated to be crowned kings of Europe and winners of the most lucrative club competition in world football.
Now onto the next task ... predicting who will beat who and which team will emerge with the large-handled trophy held aloft. The realm of prediction is dangerous ground for journalists who earn their money through their knowledge and reporting of fact. All manner of dark arts are required to insure that, come the day of the final on 22 May, the prediction that has been written in black and white does not look silly.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread as the saying goes, so here is this journalist's thought on what will happen and why. First up, the all-France tie of Lyon against Bordeaux. Two well-matched sides on the surface but having seen Lyon fell the giants of Real Madrid the feeling in my stomach says Lyon will edge it.
English champions Manchester United take on Bayern Munich of Germany in the next tie. Both teams are in good form and have a stellar array of stars, however - as demonstrated in the famous final of 1999 - superstition is the key factor that decides the winner between these auld enemies.
United are chasing an unprecedented fourth title defense at home and a unique third consecutive appearance in a European Cup final in 2010. Ferguson is not a man often denied and Bayern fans will be still be haunted by that agonizing loss a decade ago when the pressure is on. Fergie's hat-trick of European Cups could come in the same season that he has a chance to overturn Liverpool's record of English titles and surpass the record held by Matt Busby for years in charge of the Old Trafford club. The Red Devils will advance.
For these reasons United will not only beat Bayern but progress past Lyon to the Bernabeu-hosted final. But who will be their opposition?
Arsenal must beat the awe-inspiring Barcelona side led by Pep Guardiola to progress, a feat that will be beyond the Gunners. Lionel Messi is at the peak of his game, Arsenal's defense has proved leaky against top-flight opposition but the crucial factor here is Thierry Henry. Arsene Wenger is confident ahead of the game and he is not often wrong about selling players at the apposite time, however, the soothsayer in me says the footballing Gods will see Henry triumph over his former boss.
Which leaves Inter Milan against CSKA Moscow - a clean cut result. Jose Mourinho is too canny an operator to be outsmarted by the last-eight newcomers. The sparkle in the "Special One's" eyes after beating his old club Chelsea says that Inter will go far this year.
It means an enticing clash between Barca and Inter is in the offering for the second semifinal. The telling information needed to pick the winner of this match-up are the personal histories involved. Mourinho faces another former employer carrying good form in this respect, hit-man Samuel Eto'o plays against the club that sold him and Barca have the pressure of following the treble-winning season of 2009. Inter win, no doubt.
So the final will be against Mourinho's Inter and Ferguson's Manchester United, interesting in as much that Mourinho would surely jump at the chance to replace Fergie at Old Trafford when the Scot retires and the Scot, if my hunch is correct, will not retire until he has won three European Cups. It's all based on speculation of course but there's a feeling in the bones that Ferguson will get the crescendo finish to his managerial career he seeks.
United crowned champions then ... how could anyone disagree with such a scientific approach?
What a guy! Novak Djokovic may be the men's world number two tennis player, but he certainly isn’t letting success, fame and fortune go to his head.
I had the pleasure of spending some quality time with Novak in his home town of Belgrade - as I interviewed him for CNN's brand new tennis program Open Court - and he was a great host. Calm, relaxed, pleasant. A real gentleman, and mature beyond his tender age of 22.
We met at a tennis complex built by his family in the Serbian capital and sat down for about an hour to talk about his past, present and future. What impressed me the most about the man they call “Nole” was the way he described the war and the NATO bombings of Belgrade.
I could tell he felt a lot of pain about what happened to his city, but it was also clear to see that it never derailed him or his dream to become a professional tennis player. He had a goal, and there is no doubt that he always believed he could reach it. No matter what or who got in his way. He kept on practicing and playing, even when the explosions could be heard outside.
Novak also showed me the jovial side of his character. The Serbian star is known for the impersonations he does of his fellow professionals, and although he didn’t have time to give me a glimpse of them, he did joke around with me when we talked about social networking. When I asked him if he would accept me as a friend on Facebook, he said it depended on how many girlfriends I had! Funny, because no matter how many I have, there is no question he has many more …
Djokovic is leading an all-star Open Courtcast for the inaugural broadcast. Former world number four Greg Rusedski looks at the history of the game with a visit to a real tennis court at a royal palace in London, while Caroline Wozniacki previews her upcoming video blogs. Find out how the players get power in their shots as the secret of stringing rackets is uncovered at the Indian Wells tournament in California.
Tune in too at 1230 GMT Thursday 18 March to find out which tennis great will be unveiled as the new anchor of the program!
If anyone had not yet formed an opinion on Tiger Woods, the return of the world number one to the game that made him a champion will surely provide food for thought.
The extra-marital affairs which forced the self-imposed exile of the 34-year-old is one thing, but the return of a great to the arena they once dominated will always attract interest.
Muhammed Ali picked a fight with Jerry Quarry in 1970 following his ban from boxing, Michael Schumacher drove a Mercedes around the tarmac of Bahrain to show the world there was speed yet in his racing boots, and Tiger has picked the venue of his first major triumph - the Augusta Masters - to rejoin the fray.
It was typical of the 14-time grand slam champion to skip warm-up tournaments and go straight to the first grand slam of the season - like all the names mentioned above, once the limelight of the big-time has been sampled, it is hard to get it from under your skin.
The move suggests life really can’t be that bad for Tiger Woods, in just under a month he has gone from publicly stating that he didn’t know when he would return to golf, to announcing his comeback - hardly the 43 months suffered by Ali for refusing the draft to Vietnam.
Instead of easing back into the game he is diving head first into a major championship - arguably the one everyone wants to win the most out of the four available in any given year.
Augusta is a highly-charged atmosphere even without the dynamite of a Tiger Woods return. So, is Tiger feeling mentally strong? Or was he never really weakened by the outcry over his affairs?
His rehabilitation, for whatever it is that he is suffering or been suffering, must be going remarkably well for the world number one to suddenly feel his personal life is in decent enough shape for a return to the game in such a fashion.
If that’s the case, it’s great news for Tiger and his family. Some professionals I know quite well have told me that Tiger and wife Elin have been playing tennis together.
But I, along with many others I have spoken to during my travels, have always felt his act of self-flagellation on February 19 was a plea for sympathy in order to rehabilitate his public image.
Just maybe the big speech too, as his playing agenda becomes clearer, was about making a return to The Masters less harrowing for him. Those in his camp would also want the crowd to be less aggressive towards him.
Funnily enough, just days after Tiger’s apology, his caddie Steve Williams spoke of his anger and sympathy for the boss while Tiger was back practicing with his coach Hank Haney.
In my view, Williams would not have spoken without the direct approval of the Tiger camp. The timing and tone of his comments were all part of the carefully stage-managed plan to get everyone ready for his return to The Masters.
Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with this, but I don't believe Tiger is fooling anyone with this all to transparent approach.
Looking forward to Augusta, I wonder if Tiger will hold a press conference at The Masters and allow questions about his return? The concept now seems laughable given the way Tiger and his team continue to go about their business.
But it would be nice to know how he is feeling about his game upon his return and whether he thinks he can win or not.
Whatever happens it will be great to watch Tiger’s first tee shot -– I suspect it will fly down the middle as if nothing’s ever changed or even happened.
That’s just the way Tiger would like it too, but the jury is out as to whether he can reclaim the adulation of the fans in the way that Ali did and Schumacher is attempting too.
David Beckham's international career was never going to just peter out. That's not the way the man does things, as drama and intrigue has followed him every step of the way throughout his career.
So, at the risk of this sounding like an obituary, if, as feared, this is the end of the line for his World Cup and international career, then it's only fitting that he went out on his shield, playing the game and fighting for his place in Fabio Capello's England squad.
Because, make no mistake, Beckham was by no means a certainty to go to South Africa even before the injury - a fact he was well aware of himself. Capello insists that all his players are competing at the highest level in the lead-up to the finals in order to be eligible for selection. And Beckham, while having made the loan move to Milan from the LA Galaxy for the express purpose of keeping himself in World Cup contention, had spent much of his time on the bench for the Rossonieri, coming on to play cameo roles, though still considered by Milan boss, Leonardo, an "important part of the squad."
So, on paper, there were others in front of him in terms of being selected to play on the right side of England's midfield. And the injury has, in a way, let Capello off the hook. As now he'll no longer have to decide whether Beckham's effectiveness as a talisman should override his impact as a player to earn him selection.
That said, it would have been a nice dilemma to have, as there's no doubt that Beckham, despite his mild-mannered demeanor, does have the ability to inspire. Not by shouting and cajoling his team-mates, but by his mere presence. Not to get too metaphysical about all this, but, having met and interviewed him many times, the guy does have a positive aura about him. And, with David in the squad to provide a quiet word; that steely-eyed look he often adopts in pressure situations; or, of course, that killer cross or free-kick of which he's still capable, England would have been a stronger contender in South Africa.
Unfortunately, it's probable that England will have to do without all of the above, as the Achilles tendon injury Beckham sustained is not as easily overcome as the broken metatarsal he suffered in the lead up to the 2002 World Cup, which he was able to shake off in time to play in the finals.
Of course, being David, he will fight to the last to be fit for selection. But, with the provisional 28-man England squad set to be announced on May 16, and the final 23 to be revealed on June 1, all the positive thinking in the world is unlikely to get him on the plane. There's just not enough healing time, and too great a risk for Capello to include him half-fit and hopeful.
So, his international career will likely end, aged 35 in May, with 115 caps that in no way tell the story of what David Beckham meant to the England football team. In his heyday, the man was immense, and even in decline he still had something intangible to offer. So Becks, you will be missed.
It was ushered into the studio by six burly bodyguards and an entourage of fourteen; no filming was allowed of its movement from a taxi into the building; and to maintain its anonymity it was transported in an aluminium case packed with foam.
It is not often the World Cup trophy comes to town but when it does, even a newsroom as hardened to the glamour of celebrity and big-name personalities as CNN's, was unable to contain its collective excitement.
Queues of smiling journalists rapidly formed to get a photo with the hallowed artefact, to get close to an object that football legends such as Diego Maradona and Pele sweat blood and tears to call their own for a few precious moments, and fans from Delhi to Denver covet on behalf of their nation.
The attention attracted by the World Cup is unique, and in a measure that seemed befitting, the handlers advised that only players who have won the tournament or heads of state would be allowed to touch the metal surface. Neither present amongst CNN's ranks, so breathing near to the trophy had to suffice.
In fact, due to failure at successive events, it is maybe no surprise that this particular version of the cup has visited British shores only once before; a trip that must always jangle the nerves of those organizing the tour.
Afterall, England does not have a great record concerning the security of this particular valued item. As hosts to the event in 1966, shortly before the opening game was due to kick off at Wembley, the World Cup was stolen from an exhibition in London.
The blushes of a nation were only saved when a dog named Pickles found the Jules Rimet trophy (the first version of the World Cup kept by Brazil on becoming world champions for the third time in 1970) wrapped in newspaper seven day's later.
The current version, used for the first time in 1974, is solid 18-carat gold. It measures 36.8 centimeters (14.5 inches) high and weighs in at six kilograms (14 pounds). The gold alone would be valued at $220,000 at current market prices, though the tour party told CNN the trophy is "invaluable."
The drawing power of the cup, which will have visited 83 nations before arriving for the party in South Africa in June, suggests this assertion is true - with thousands of soccer fans around the world, including many in the CNN office, clamouring to get close to the small hunk of metal.
No one knows who will be the lucky captain lifting the trophy in Soccer City on July 11; but one thing is for sure, the team crowned world champions will be the envy of the world when they walk away with the golden prize.
Imagine you have just bought the car of your dreams. A convertible, for example. It’s fast, stylish, classy. It has all the extras, all the bells and whistles if you will. You have spent your savings on this car because you want to take it on the road trip of a lifetime.
That one road trip you always wanted to go on. Now imagine that halfway through the trip, the car breaks down. Not only does it break down, but the engine blows and the wheels fall off. Your road trip is over; the headache of crushed dreams and major repairs lie ahead.
This may give you a small idea of how Florentino Perez feels now. The Real Madrid president spent over $340 million on new players in the summer and he did it to win the Champions League this season. He wanted to win the European Cup for the 10th time in the club's history, and he wanted to do it at home, at the Santiago Bernabeu - the venue for the final. That was his dream.
Well, as you know, that’s not going to happen, and Mr. Perez may be feeling a little silly. For this road trip, he may have been better equipped with a rugged 4×4 SUV, not a convertible. Yes, Real Madrid is flashy, fast and classy. However, it is not robust and it is certainly not reliable.
History may indeed repeat itself. Once again, Perez’s obsession with signing star names threatens to end in failure. The first time he was president, he invested hundreds of millions of dollars and only managed to win the Champions League once. That’s it. Despite bringing in Ronaldo, David Beckham, Michael Owen and many others, the only title he captured was in 2002. Yes, that team had a couple of "Galacticos" in Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, but it also had a solid back line and a work horse called Claude Makelele.
Right now the Real Madrid team is unbalanced. The forward line is phenomenal. Cristiano Ronaldo is having a fantastic season and Gonzalo Higuain is in stellar form. But that’s it. Kaka has been forced to play out of position, on the left and has been ineffective. Xabi Alonso has become uncertain about his role, torn between being a playmaker or a ball winner… and the defence is not strong enough. Pepe may be injured right now, but even if he were fit, there is not enough quality and depth, and there is not a leader who can boss the line. Real desperately need someone in the mould of Nemanja Vidic, John Terry or Carles Puyol.
So what now? Time to panic? Not really. What could happen is that although Real will still fight for the league title, Florentino Perez could start planning for next season already, initiating a search for a manager to replace Manuel Pellegrini. Who is he going to call? Certainly Jose Mourinho will be at the top of his list.
Surely if your car has broken down, you want the best mechanic in town.
Just what is it about David Beckham that has football fans the world over worshipping him?
From Europe to the United States, Asia to Africa, Manchester to Milan via Madrid, the England midfielder is a worldwide football icon, claiming a status that appears to be out of sync with his effectiveness on the field.
It has not always been that way. Castigated by fans and English media alike following his sending-off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup finals, for a while Beckham was public enemy number one in his home country.
He was seen as a good-looking Flash Harry, too preoccupied with fashion, hairstyles and his pop-star wife Victoria.
Beckham always attracted headlines in his younger days. Some good - for his superb free-kicks and wholehearted performances on the pitch - and some indifferent, for a sometimes petulant attitude.
But while hard-line club manager Alex Ferguson grew tired of the media circus that followed his number "7," resulting in his eventual departure from Manchester United to Spain in 2003, for England Beckham could do no wrong.
His dismissal against Argentina, which prompted such vitriol and hate, gradually became nothing but a distant memory as Beckham began to turn jeers into cheers with some dynamic performances while wearing the "Three Lions" shirt.
This culminated in perhaps the finest moment of his career, when a pumped-up, super-charged Beckham dragged a struggling England team up by its bootlaces to secure a last-gasp draw over Greece and ensure qualification for the 2002 World Cup.
Without the intervention of Beckham's stunning 93rd-minute free-kick, England were staring at World Cup humiliation. The fact that the match was being played at Old Trafford only added to the theatre.
And that was it... the nation was hooked, a hero was born. In fact, in such high regard is Beckham held that he is now viewed by the English as a national treasure, sporting royalty, a very public figurehead for England's World Cup bid of 2018 ... which, with delicious irony, falls exactly 20 years from the date a perceived arrogant mop-haired young pup kicked out at Diego Simeone to get sent off in St Etienne.
Supporters are not stupid. They can see when a player is trying his hardest, putting in that extra shift, working tirelessly for the cause and Beckham has done this throughout his career.
At Real Madrid he fitted in perfectly with the "Galactico" era. Although the club were not successful on the pitch, Beckham was adored by the Los Meringues faithful for his all action style and dead-ball expertise.
The same at the San Siro, where his appearances from the substitutes bench still create a murmur from the Milan "Tifosi."
And although Beckham's initial spell with the LA Galaxy did not get off to a perfect start, he won those fans over too, helping the club reach the MLS final. Beckham's popularity is unique because it straddles different time zones for different reasons.
In England, it is for his whole hearted performances for the national team, which has seen him win more caps than any other outfield player. In Italy and Spain, for his displays and attitude with two of the biggest club sides in the world.
And in south-east Asia, where he adorns many teenage girl's bedroom wall, it could be argued that his model good looks have propelled him to god-like status.
Rare is a man who has a fan base throughout the world that envelops young and old, male and female, black and white... but David Beckham has it. Hard work, charm, good looks, politeness that help make the both man and the persona.
But, you know what, giving 100 percent every time you step out onto the field of play is the real key.
As I said earlier... fans aren't stupid.