Archive for the ‘football’ Category

Gérard Houllier taken ill: sympathy, speculation but no surprise

When Aston Villa football manager Gérard Houllier was taken to hospital on 20 April with suspected heart problems it was a shock for football fans but not a surprise. If anything, the surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Houllier, who made a full recovery after emergency heart surgery in 2001, had a thorough medical check-up in September last year before taking on the Aston Villa job. After seven difficult months, the stress seems to have taken its toll.

Fellow managers immediately offered Houllier and his family their best wishes for a speedy recovery. According to news reports, the club has made a responsible decision to give him as much time as he needs to recover. There is also plenty of sympathy from fans on Aston Villa blogs.

However, Houllier has not always been treated with such sympathy. As recently as 31 March Henry Winter wrote in the Daily Telegraph:
“These are challenging times for Villa’s manager. Over the past month, the Frenchman has been accused of everything from lacking passion to poor man-management and deploying players out of position. He has been lambasted for attempting to impose his more possession-based philosophy too quickly on a squad largely raised on Martin O’Neill’s counter-attacking principles…”

And so it goes on for several hundred words. On the same Aston Villa blog which is now wishing Houllier a rapid recovery (with full sincerity), one poster spoke for many when he wrote on 21 March:
“What a load of rubbish!! Houllier out and I’ll be singing the loudest!! We have two weeks to get him out or be relegated it’s Lerners choice. Sing and shout all you like but the players don’t want to play for him!”

Meanwhile Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, who is among those who has quickly offered Houllier his best wishes, was involved in a highly personal and public row with him in January after the move of Darren Bent from Sunderland to Aston Villa.

The point is not that Gérard Houllier has been victimised or singled out for unfair criticism but rather that football management is an almost impossible job. As the now more sympathetic Henry Winter writes, management is like an addiction and there is no escape from endless media scrutiny. Dr Dorian Dugmore, who assesses the health of managers, comments that the average tenure of a football manager in England is 18 months and they often neglect their own health while worrying about the fitness of their players.

Football, like other team sports, is to some extent a zero-sum game: in the Premier League only one of 20 teams can win the title in any given season and three teams will get relegated. One team’s success comes at the expense of another team’s failure. That is why managers patrol the touchline during games with such evident anxiety.

The pressure on football managers is unlikely to abate. There is already good work being done to highlight the issue of the health risks to managers. Let us hope that Houllier’s illness provides fresh impetus to managers to look after themselves. Get well soon, Gérard.

Blatter v Bin Hammam for FIFA Presidency

Mohamed Bin Hammam, President of the Asian Football Confederation, has announced that he will stand against incumbent Sepp Blatter in the election for the FIFA Presidency on 1 June. It promises to be a high profile campaign.

As a long-serving member of the FIFA Executive Committee, Bin Hammam is hardly an outsider but his challenge to Blatter, who has run FIFA since 1998, looks set to drive deep divisions within the organisation in the weeks leading up to the vote. There is also time for further candidates to emerge before the deadline at the end of the month.

The campaign is likely to generate much more attention than the most recent competitive election in 2002 (Blatter was unopposed in 2007), with extensive international media coverage already. See, for example the BBC, Al-Jazeera English, and Xinhua. With 208 Member Associations around the world eligible to vote it is one of the most global elections.

Driving positive PR coverage will be an important objective for the candidates as they seek to generate momentum because many of the member associations will want to be seen to back the winner.  Bin Hammam has set out in his manifesto his ambition to expand the Executive Committee and decentralise FIFA. Blatter may explain his programme at the UEFA Congress in Paris next week.

This is the first major election to lead a sports governing body since the advent of social media so it will be interesting to see to what extent the candidates engage with audiences online. Although it is member associations rather than the public who vote, popular support can only benefit candidates whereas widespread negative comment online could be damaging. You can follow both candidates on Twitter (Bin Hammam /  Sepp Blatter) and Bin Hammam on Facebook.

Commentators such as Andrew Warshaw and Keir Radnedge suggest that Blatter will be difficult to unseat but a lot can happen in 10 weeks. Expect plenty of lively debate before the election.

Social media power: Egypt today, sports tomorrow?

The surest sign of the significance of social media in the revolution in Egypt is that the regime moved so quickly to disable it. Could the dramatic impact of social media in world affairs be replicated in some way in the less serious world of sport? I think it could.

Social media activity has caused minor controversies in sporting circles in the last couple of years, such as when junior British tennis players had their funding withdrawn after photos appeared online depicting “unprofessional behaviour”. More recently, any number of athletes have attracted criticism for undiplomatic tweets, such as footballer Jack Wilshere complaining about refereeing earlier this week.

But these are generally trivial. There have been few examples of the kind of mass activism in sport that social media can help to facilitate. I suspect that it may be only a matter of time.

So what sporting issue might inspire a major protest?

Football club ownership and management frequently riles supporters. The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, whose objective is to gain a significant level of ownership of the club, claims over 160,000 members.  They have already made their presence felt through their green and gold scarves and shirts.

Elections for sporting leaders generate interest and controversy but they are unlikely to capture the public imagination. Perhaps a more likely reason for a mass protest is a controversial decision in an important match.

The Cricket World Cup is about to get underway and will stir passions, particularly in the host countries of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Big domestic and international football matches also inspire very strong emotions.

Fans have always vented their anger through whatever means and media are available to them. However, occasional public campaigns to overturn judging decisions taken on the field of play have rarely yielded results.

One notorious example was an Australian rules football match in 1967 known as the Goalpost Final. The crowd invaded the pitch in protest at a crucial refereeing decision right at the end of the game and tore down the goal posts, preventing a kick being taken which could have changed the result. The match was abandoned and a couple of days later the governing body decided the match outcome was “no decision”.

If fans feel strongly enough that they have been wronged, social media provides useful tools for organising a campaign. The other essential ingredient is for fans to believe that their action could change a result. As has been seen in Egypt, once the movement has real momentum, it can be unstoppable.

For sports governing bodies and rights-holders there is now an even greater incentive to ensure that their judging procedure and appeals process stand up to scrutiny.

Transfer window quiet: has European football peaked?

As aficionados will be aware, we are in the middle of the football transfer window in a number of countries, during which time players are bought and sold between clubs. But this year it’s all rather quiet.

It’s usually a time of feverish expectation: will the latest young superstar go to Madrid or Milan? Who will that eccentric new billionaire owner splash out on this time? Can the old pro who has passed his peak manage one last big money move?

This year there are still major deals being struck, most notably the move by Bosnian player Edin Dzeko from Wolfsburg in Germany to Manchester City for £27m. But overall the trend seems to be for loan moves and bargain-hunting rather than big-money buys.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s record transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid for £80m in 2009 looks unlikely to be beaten for some time.

European governing body UEFA is introducing a new “financial fair play” concept which requires clubs to break even in 2012. The regulations are a response not only to a time of financial crisis but also to the market disruption caused by wealthy club owners trying to buy success at any price.

While increased discipline in football finance is to be welcomed, the move to dampen the football market within Europe adds to the sense of a continent anxious about its future.

For many years now, European football clubs have been able to attract the best players from around the world. South American, African and, most recently, Asian players have moved to Europe to prove themselves against the best. The leagues of England, Italy and Spain between them provided a third of the players representing 32 nations at the 2010 World Cup.

With a growing economy and a World Cup to host in new stadiums in 2014, Brazilian clubs may gradually increase in appeal. The move by former World Cup winner Ronaldinho back to Flamengo is not in itself enough to signify a trend. The real test will come when attempts are made to lure emerging young players from Brazil to Europe in the next couple of years.

With two weeks left before the transfer window closes, there is still time for a flurry of dramatic moves but nobody seems to expect it. At the time of writing, the Sky Sports Transfer Centre has a series of frustrated news snippets about players not moving clubsThe £160m record transfer expenditure by Premier League clubs in January 2009 already seems a long time ago.

Winning the Ashes: how much celebration is too much?

Anybody in England or Australia who follows the news at all will be aware that the English cricket team has beaten Australia to retain the Ashes.

There has been blanket media coverage of the victory in recent days in print, broadcast and online media with the types of contrasting headlines you would expect:
England wrap up series win against Australia in style – Guardian
Fearless England have a ball as they pulverise Aussies – Daily Mail
Time for the axe, and chop from top down – Sydney Morning Herald
The pain of slow torture is almost over – Daily Telegraph Australia

Now that competition on the field is over, media analysis has quickly moved on to cover the celebrations.

When England beat Australia in 2005 for the first time in many years, the celebrations were legendary. Tens of thousands turned up to watch an open-top bus parade by the team in central London. However, the team then suffered a poor run of form, including a heavy defeat in the next series against Australia. Commentators claimed that the England team had become complacent, feeling they had achieved enough.

This time the tone is very different. Partly that is because the Cricket World Cup starts next month and partly because the Australian team is believed to have  declined: more challenges lie ahead. Apparently there is to be a reception with the Prime Minister but later in the year and it is clear that the kind of drunken antics seen in 2005 will not be welcomed.

The absence of high profile official revelry may open the way for sponsors to capitalise but careful judgement is required.

Planning celebrations is a difficult business. The Football Association faced an embarrassing situation in 2006 when plans for a victory parade in the event of England winning the World Cup leaked several weeks before the tournament started.  As football fans will recall, the Football Association’s advance planning was not enough to bring home the trophy.

On this occasion the England and Wales Cricket Board should be commended not only for their management and stewardship of the successful team, but also for judging the public mood. There is near consensus among media commentators that the right approach is for modest celebrations. By showing restraint in their moment of triumph, the governing body is demonstrating their long-term ambition.

5 sports predictions for 2011

There’s a large industry devoted to predicting sports results and I don’t intend to compete with it so instead here are 5 predictions for the international sports scene in 2011:

1) The election campaign for the FIFA Presidency attracts unprecedented media and political attention as the pro- and anti-Sepp Blatter camps compete for support ahead of the vote on 1 June

2) Sports event organisers start to offer WiFi access with tickets for spectators so that they can watch instant replays and keep up to date with scores on their mobile devices

3) Video games industry representatives campaign to gain recognition for video games as a sporting discipline now that devices such as the Xbox Kinect make more physically demanding games popular. Leading gamers do battle with sports stars in televised competitions

4) A major European football club goes out of business when their debts are proven to be much larger than previously realised, leading to withdrawal from their league mid-season. A legal battle ensues because it is not clear how the unplayed matches will be accounted for in the league table

5)  A virtually unknown athlete emerges to win a famous victory in one of the world’s great sporting events, causing even the most cynical of sports fans to cheer in appreciation and wonder as a new star is born

Personally, I won’t be putting money on any of these happening but I’m more confident about the last one than the rest.

Happy New Sporting Year.

What should 2018 sponsors be doing now?

Due to the scale of the biggest sports events, host cities and countries now tend to be chosen about 7 years ahead. Where do you see yourself in 2018?

If you’re a football fan you may be thinking of visiting Russia for the World Cup. Winter sports enthusiasts will know within a few months whether they will be headed to Annecy, Munich or PyeongChang for the Olympic Winter Games in 2018.

There are a number of industries that have to plan many years ahead, ranging from construction to financial services and military defence. But sport is unusual because the precise timing can be predicted with a fair degree of confidence. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio will take place on 5 August 2016. Are you busy that day?

The work programme and life-cycle for organising committees are now well-established as a result of studies by the International Olympic Committee and others who have documented the process from setting up a bid to winding up the year after the event. Even if the local culture, political environment and level of development have a major impact on the way of working, the ultimate deliverables will be similar from one event to the next. Hence Rio 2016 has just started construction of the Olympic Park whereas London 2012 has just completed the venue for canoe slalom.

For sponsors and other stakeholders, by contrast, there is less in the way of formal guidance. While the types of activity which sponsors will undertake during an event are well understood (advertising, media relations, client hospitality, internal communications and so on), there is no obvious template to advise sponsors what to do 7 years, 4 years or even 1 year in advance. Given that sponsors of mega events are now often signed up a long time ahead, this is an important matter.

Having committed large sums of money over several years, sponsors should look to make the most of the association and (difficult as it may be) set aside budget to do so. It’s clear that awareness will be low at the start of the event life-cycle and that there will probably be more promotion closer to the competition. It’s also predictable that organising committees will look for incremental revenue by offering set piece opportunities to partners along the way but this does not amount to a systematic or documented programme which can be effectively replicated.

Although sponsors compete with each other and are understandably secretive about their commercial plans, almost all of them fit into a handful of categories in terms of objectives (generate more sales, enhance brand, stakeholder engagement, internal engagement etc.).

It should therefore be possible to provide some guidance on best practice for sponsor activity several years ahead of the event. Ultimately it would be in the interests of rights-holders and organisers to do what they can to steer commercial partners through the event life-cycle because happier sponsors will pay more money.

Until that guidance comes, 2018 seems as far off for sponsors as it does for spectators.

World Cup: misery for 29 out of 32

Only four teams remain in contention for the FIFA World Cup. Of the other 28 who qualified for the final tournament, a number have gone home in disgrace while others have merely disappointed.

The mathematical reality of the World Cup is that the supporters of only one team can be truly happy at the end. In most World Cup tournaments there is one team that reaches the semi-final unexpectedly and goes home as heroes. This time it could be Uruguay (not that I’m ruling them out). And then there is often a team which makes it through to the knock-out stages, exceeding expectations. Slovakia fits the bill, who defeated defending champions Italy.

Before the tournament starts it is natural for all of the teams to be optimistic because they have all had some good results in qualifying and, as we all know, it’s not always the best team that wins.

However, a quick glance at the world rankings serves as a reminder of the form.

Teams which under-performed (eliminated at least one round earlier than world ranking in April 2010 would predict):
Brazil (1)
Portugal (3)
Italy (5)
France (9)
Greece (13)

Teams which over-performed (reached at least one round further than world ranking would predict):
Uruguay (16)
Ghana (32)
Republic of Korea (47)
Japan (45)

Leaving aside the question of the reliability of the rankings themselves, that means 23 out of 32 teams performed more or less as expected.

Media criticism in some countries has been harsh (France – Libération, Italy - Gazzetta dello Sport, England – Daily Mail), while successful teams enjoy rather more positive coverage (Uruguay – Ovación). It’s difficult to tell whether media coverage mainly reflects public opinion or leads it when teams are eliminated but it seems intuitively probable that journalists are guilty of building up hopes to unrealistic levels in many countries ahead of the tournament.

The frustrating truth is that the supporters of about 29 out of 32 teams will feel let down, whatever happens. It may be that your team in particular lost out only because of a cross-bar or a refereeing decision but that doesn’t change the bigger picture.

Sponsors can dare to hope, along with the rest of us, but they also need to recognise that their financial and emotional investments are highly risky. Unless you’re German, of course.

Attack on Adebayor’s Togo football team leads the news

The terrifying attack on the Togo football team in Angola yesterday has been the lead item on the BBC News for some hours. Their bus driver was killed and several players were injured among the squad, which is in Angola for the African Cup of Nations

Inevitably there have been calls for teams to withdraw following the attack by the heavily armed rebel group and it remains to be seen to what extent the tournament will be affected. Terrorist attacks on sports events (such as the recent suicide bombing at a volleyball match in Pakistan and an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team), provoke particular outrage because we expect sport to be a fun diversion from the troubles of the world but also because the athletes are familiar to us.

Togo’s captain and star, Emmanuel Adebayor, who plays for Manchester City, is well-known to football fans around the world and gave a dignified interview in the aftermath of the attack. His involvement has undoubtedly raised the profile of the incident, which might otherwise have been a minor news item. 

Due to the global nature of modern sport, fans get to watch and admire athletes from countries that rarely feature in international news stories. For example, 800m runner Maria Mutola is the most famous person from Mozambique and sprinter Kim Collins raised awareness of St Kitts and Nevis. 

The familiarity of successful athletes makes their homelands seem less distant and obscure. A violent attack on a football team from a country which few people from outside Africa could place on a map therefore shocks us because we feel as if we know one of the people involved personally.   

This power of sport to make far off lands and peoples more familiar is very significant and can have the positive effect of increasing tolerance and understanding. Unfortunately, in this case the increased profile that Emmanuel Adebayor brings to the Togo team has had a different result: it has made them targets for terrorists seeking publicity.

Rugby legend Gareth Thomas goes public about his private life

Gareth Thomas, the most-capped player in Welsh rugby union history, talked openly about his homosexuality in an interview with the Daily Mail on Saturday. He is the first famous rugby union player to do so, joining a handful of athletes from other sports in recent years.

Thomas, one of the legends of modern rugby, is close to the end of his playing career and says that he believes the time is right to be open because attitudes have changed. One of his objectives is to provide reassurance for young people who are going through the same emotional trauma that he did as a teenager. He has suffered a broken marriage and apparently contemplated suicide in his attempt to live a double life.

Following the publication of the interview, Thomas has received immediate backing from many in the rugby world and the media response has been universally sympathetic. Sir Clive Woodward, who appointed Gareth Thomas as captain during the British and Irish Lions Tour in 2005, told the BBC that the player’s sexuality was irrelevant to his achievements in rugby. Thomas himself reports that coaches and team-mates in whom he had confided were very supportive.

Like several other male team sports, including football and American football, rugby union has always had a macho, heterosexual reputation reinforced by a predominantly male fan base. In contrast to say entertainers and politicians, it has been completely taboo for players to talk openly about being gay. In fact there have been more sportswomen than men known publicly to be homosexual. One reason for this may be that the best known female athletes tend to come from individual rather than team sports, which have a very different audience.

Commentators in the Independent on Sunday suggest that it is the potential backlash from fans which prevents any gay footballers from speaking publicly rather than the response from their employers or team-mates. It seems more likely that a retired player or somebody close to the end of his career would go public than a younger player who is still making his way in the sport. Justin Fashanu, the only openly gay professional footballer, tragically committed suicide in 1998, eight years after making the revelation in a newspaper interview. 

Other athletes may now have the confidence to take the lead from Gareth Thomas having seen the positive public response, although it will of course depend on their personal circumstances. There will be a major news story when the first big name footballer says that he is gay but the media interest will surely diminish once a small number have spoken publicly.

Without wanting to trivialise what could be a very difficult emotional dilemma, there is a real opportunity in the next few days for a footballer to make headlines.