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Sport Report End of Year Awards

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Sportsperson of the Year: Manny Pacquiao (Boxing)

Manny Pacquiao ended 2009 in style with a highly impressive 12th round stoppage victory over the much bigger Miguel Cotto and so 2010 was supposed to be all about a huge showdown with the only other man who can legitimately claim he is the sport’s best; Floyd Mayweather Jr.

What was dubbed the biggest fight in boxing history did not materialise for a whole host of reasons and now looks as if it may well never happen given Mayweather’s ongoing legal woes. This left the boxing world feeling deflated, but Pacquiao handled the disappointment admirably and signed for a fight on March 13th against Joshua Clottey at Cowboys Stadium, Texas.

Despite looking like he was fighting a middleweight, Pacquiao dominated the defensively-minded Ghanaian for 12 lopsided rounds, pitching a shutout on one judge’s card and losing only one round on the other two. Pacquiao once again dazzled with his speed, movement and power and looked every bit the best in the business.

After Mayweather’s May master class against Shane Mosley, hopes for the megafight were rekindled, only to die again very quickly. Consequently, Pacquiao’s promoter Bob Arum arranged for the Filipino to face off against another of his fighters, the disgraced Mexican Antonio Margarito. This fight would see Pacquiao jump up yet another weight division to light-middleweight in search of a title at an eighth weight class.

For at least the fourth time in five fights, many questioned whether Pacquiao would be too small, but that theory was blown out of the water as he used his superior speed, movement and accuracy to deliver a hugely one-sided beating. By the end of the fight, Margarito’s face resembled a butcher’s apron and in the 11th and 12th rounds, a compassionate Pacquiao seemed to be pleading with referee Laurence Cole to stop the contest.

Despite having to deal with the disappointment of the richest fight in boxing history falling through and the pressure of becoming a Congressman in his homeland, Pacquiao delivered two virtuoso performances over two much bigger fighters, barely losing a round along the way. Whilst he may continue to be successful, the Filipino megastar continues to exhibit a human side rarely seen in boxing. His political career is borne out of a desire to help the people of Sarangani Province and the sight of him pleading with Cole to end Margarito’s misery deserves great respect. There is also no doubt that he carried the Mexican towards the end of the contest. He remains humble and personable and this, coupled with his sporting exploits this year, makes him a worthy winner.

Team of the Year: Blackpool FC (Football)

This may seem a strange choice given the successes enjoyed by Internazionale and Spain but one cannot overestimate what Ian Holloway’s men have done. Working on a shoestring budget, Holloway managed to gain promotion for The Seasiders by using excellent man management skills to get every last ounce of quality out of his squad. The players put in the work demanded and reaped the rewards. After a surprise victory over Cardiff City in the playoff final, Blackpool became a town on the Premier League map and it is arguably here that they have achieved the most.

Many sneered at the thought of such a small club with limited funds trying to survive in the Premier League and wrote off Blackpool as a club destined to perform a yo-yo. Some even claimed that they would achieve the lowest points total in the history of the Premier League, but the doubters have been silenced. A highly impressive start to the season, which includes wins at Anfield, St James’s Park and The Stadium of Light, means that The Tangerines are sitting pretty in eighth having amassed 25 points  from 17 games. There is still a long way to go, but if Blackpool continue to play as they have, they can plan for another season of Premiership football.

Their most important achievement has been that they have showed other teams coming up to English football’s top tier how to play. They have refused to lie down and be beaten before a ball has been kicked and judging by results in the Premiership this season, it is an attitude that has rubbed off. Well done to Ian Holloway and his men!

Coach of the Year: Jose Mourinho – Internazionale/Real Madrid (Football)

The Portuguese continues to divide opinion, but his achievements cannot be doubted. This year, in what was effectively his only season at Internazionale with a team he put together, he won the treble. Before Mourinho’s arrival in Milan, the Nerazzuri had a reputation as a team dominant on the home front but which underachieved in Europe. Mourinho ended that spectacularly by delivering the club’s first European Cup win since 1965. As if this were not enough, he also delivered the Scudetto and the Coppa Italia, making Internazionale the first Italian team to ever win the treble. Players such as Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder enjoyed a new lease of life under Mourinho, showing he is a top level man manager as well as a tactical genius.

Without Mourinho, Inter have struggled to defend their crowns, underlining the importance of the role he played. Mourinho has of course since moved on to pastures new in Madrid where his side is very much in contention to win three trophies, despite a 6-0 mauling by Barcelona last month. The man is a born winner so do not be surprised if Real finally end Barcelona’s recent dominance.

Up-and-coming star of the Year: Kevin Durant (Basketball)

Kevin Durant has had a dream year. The 22 year-old won the NBA scoring Championship, gained plaudits galore, led the USA to the FIBA World Championship title and won the championship MVP in the process. He is also on course for a second consecutive scoring title and is turning Oklahoma in to a force to be reckoned with. In fact, there is undoubtedly a direct correlation between the improvement in the franchise’s fortunes and the upsurge in Durant’s own form. As Durant moved in to the elite player category, the Thunder qualified for their first playoff series with a record of 50-32, something which echoes Lebron James’s early career. Unfortunately for Oklahoma, they met the top seeds and defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers and lost in six games.

At the age of 22, Durant has the world at his feet. Now an NBA superstar with a whopping endorsement contract from Nike to match, he really is close to a complete player. He is able to post up against bigger guys and shoot over the top of smaller guards. He can drive the lane or he can shoot from the perimeter. Perhaps Lebron James and Kobe Bryant are the only players currently in the NBA who are better all-round performers than Durant; that is how good he is.

Can Durant go on and cement his place as a genuine megastar who consistently performs off the charts? If the evidence of 2010 is anything to go by, it looks a nailed on certainty.

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Categories: Miscellaneous

Who will win the Ballon d’or?

December 8, 2010 Leave a comment

The three finalists for this year’s Ballon d’or have now been announced with all three coming from FC Barcelona. Both Andres Iniesta and Xavi played key roles as Spain won the World Cup, whilst club colleague Lionel Messi had a fantastic season for the Catalan side. Who do you think will win football’s most prestigious individual award?

Categories: Football

Has FIFA really made two huge mistakes?

December 5, 2010 5 comments

This Thursday gone (2nd December) in Zurich, the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 editions of the World Cup were announced. FIFA had made it clear beforehand that the 2018 tournament would be held in Europe and so England, Russia, and joint bids from Spain/Portugal and Netherlands/Belgium all campaigned for the right to host the tournament. Russia won by a landslide, needing only two rounds of votes to do so. The 2022 bidding process was a more global affair with South Korea, Japan, Australia, the USA and Qatar all competing for the right to host the world’s greatest sports tournament. The only country with no history of hosting major sporting events, Qatar, won. Both decisions were met with heavy criticisms from news outlets the world over, but has FIFA really erred in its judgment as much as these vehement critics claim? In the case of Russia 2018, no.

The team of inspectors that recently compiled a highly detailed technical report on Russia’s bid described it overall as medium-risk, with air travel singled out as high-risk. There is no doubt that there are significant issues that need to be overcome prior to the World Cup in Russia. The country’s transport system is creaking, air travel is poor (not an insignificant footnote in the world’s largest country) and there is a lack of accommodation for fans and teams alike. Furthermore, the unsavoury topics of high crime rates and racism in Russia’s major cities have also been mentioned.

The biggest problem facing Russia however is the amount of construction work required. Fourteen new stadia are to be built in Moscow, Rostov, Krasnodar, Samara, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Kazan, Volgograd, Yaroslavl, Sochi, Nizhny Novgorod and Saransk, with reconstruction planned at Moscow’s Dynamo and Luzhniki stadia. The St. Petersburg site, which will be the new home of Zenit St. Petersburg, is due to open next year, three years late. FIFA will be hoping that this is not a sign of things to come. Construction on such a large scale is a challenge for any country, let alone one whose economy is playing catch up to the rest of Europe and if preparations for Euro 2012 in neighbouring Ukraine are anything to go by, FIFA may be sweating right up until kick off.

These issues gave the other bidding nations a great deal of confidence, perhaps even arrogance. The England bid team, led by Andy Anson, strutted around and gave a sense that they felt the self-proclaimed ‘home of football’ had a divine right to host the tournament. The English press wrote at great length about the country’s first rate stadia and transport links, although anybody who has ever travelled to Wembley on the tube or Old Trafford on the tram may be inclined to disagree with the latter. David Beckham and Prince William remained gracious in defeat but if everything is in place in England to host the best World Cup ever, everybody involved with the bid team should ask themselves how they failed so spectacularly to secure the tournament.

The English media however, were anything but gracious. Despite the absence of any hard evidence to support their claims, the newspapers ran headlines such as SOLD (The Daily Mirror), FIFA BUNGS RUSSIA THE WORLD CUP (The Sun) and the very imaginative WHAT A FIX (The Daily Star).

Russia being awarded the World Cup is actually a good decision on the part of FIFA. One of the federation’s stated aims is to develop the game globally and if the likes of England, Spain and Portugal already boast top stadia and transport links, why do they need the development that the World Cup brings? FIFA’s programme of frontiering started in 1994 when the USA hosted the World Cup for the first time. It was a great success (even if the final was awful) that helped popularise the sport in the world’s biggest economy and their Cold War nemesis can benefit in exactly the same way.

Taking the tournament to Russia will see the erection of 14 new, state of the art stadia, transport links improved in a vast country and football introduced to a nation in which football is not the automatic sport of choice for many. Increasing the game’s global reach by targeting new markets can only be a positive thing and by choosing South Africa in 2010, Brazil in 2014 and Russia in 2018, FIFA seems to have a clear plan of global expansion. Its aims are not of course purely noble. Exploiting such a vast and potentially very lucrative market will no doubt allow football’s governing body, and all those associated closely with it, to make huge amounts of money. Anybody who still believes that the World Cup is still just a football festival is at least 20 years behind the times.

The decision to award Qatar the 2022 edition is however mystifying. Like Russia, the tiny emirate received the worst technical report but was still awarded the tournament. Whilst the argument that Russia is a new market and its rival bidders from Western Europe were not stands up, the same can not be said of Qatar. Australia has never hosted a World Cup and is a major growth market for FIFA, as is the USA, and both of these countries have excellent track records when it comes to hosting major sporting events. Either of these venues would have satisfied FIFA’s aims of developing the game and leaving a lasting legacy. Instead the Executive Committee opted for a small emirate with a population of less than two million and which is awash with petro-dollars. They opted for a country with absolutely no sporting pedigree or history, and anybody who watched last year’s friendly between Brazil and England in Doha would be forgiven for having serious reservations about the atmosphere in Qatari stadia.

Sepp Blatter announces Qatar is to host the 2022 World Cup. (This image of the property of Getty Images)

The country’s laws will also be something never before seen. Homosexuality is still a criminal offence in Qatar and alcohol is available in a select few, very expensive hotels. Being seen in public with alcohol is outlawed, something unlikely to please long time sponsor Budweiser. It has been speculated however, that there will be a relaxation of this law with possible exclusion zones around stadia. Time will tell.

Like Russia, Qatar must embark on an ambitious program of stadium building. The plans look fantastic and in a country in which money is no object, this should not pose a problem. In fact, the money is clearly there to provide any infrastructure necessary and neighbouring Bahrain may also help by housing fans.

The biggest issue with a World Cup in Qatar is undoubtedly the weather. Temperatures of 50°C are not uncommon and the average for June and July is around 45°C. This is surely much too hot for a professional football match that could last as long as 120 minutes. FIFA’s own guidelines state that anything above 32°C is potentially dangerous and that all games must be played with an open roof, which rules out indoor, air-conditioned stadia. The Qataris are working on outdoor, air-conditioned stadia in an effort to combat the sweltering temperatures, but there is no proof to show how effective these are for players physically exerting themselves for 90 minutes. These temperatures could cause serious problems and one must question FIFA’s thinking on the matter.

Again though, FIFA is taking the tournament to a new territory and it is certainly no coincidence that it is in what is possibly the world’s richest region.  It opens up yet another lucrative market and has the added bonus of helping poorer nations as the stadia built will be dismantled after the tournament and rebuilt in developing countries. This is thought to have swung the vote in Qatar’s favour.

There is no doubt that there are serious risks associated with the two venues chosen on Thursday but with great risk comes great reward and it is on this age old adage that FIFA is gambling. The sport’s governing body has not fixed the outcome and its aim of making the game truly global makes sense. Sepp Blatter and his cohorts would be well-advised however not to alienate those who have stood by them for so long. World Cups in developed, football-loving nations should not become a thing of the past at the expense of new, money-spinning territories and if FIFA plans to make this the case, it should be honest with the likes of England, Spain and the USA and save them the bother of putting together excellent bids.

The problem lies not so much in the decision reached, but in how it was reached. Seeing Russia win such a landslide and rank outsider Qatar win makes it seem that the outcome was pre-determined all along, that the Executive Committee made up its mind a long time ago. FIFA may be pioneering in the way it is taking its showpiece to new countries, but it is about time it modernised and replaced the grossly outmoded system of 22 men voting in a secret room with a more transparent and 21st Century-friendly one.

Categories: Football