It’s Coming Home?

Aaron Ramsey

The presence of football in the Olympic games angers many and confuses many others. The competition is not perceived by the British audience as being particularly important to the professional footballer of today, especially one of British origin, and is outweighed in prestige by, among other competitions, the FIFA World Cup. There are claims that its place in the Olympics should be taken away and given to another sport for which Olympic gold would be the ultimate goal. My personal view would tend to agree with those claims and I would much rather see squash as an Olympic sport than football.

Wembley Stadium lit up at night

Wembley Stadium will host both finals of the football at the London Olympics. Photo: Martin Pettitt

However football has a long history in the Olympics, there has been a football event in all but two of the summer Olympics since the modern games began in 1896 and it has featured in every summer Olympiad since Berlin in 1936. The modern British view of irrelevance may have more to do with the fact that Great Britain & N. Ireland haven’t entered a side into an Olympic football qualifying tournament since Munich 1972. It seems a simplistic view but the fact that we haven’t had a home interest in Olympic football for forty years will naturally lead to less importance being placed on the competition. Were more people aware that Britain are still the joint most successful team in Olympic football history (3 golds, tied with Hungary), then perhaps there’d be more clamour to reassert our authority?

The tournament may also have less relevance in the rest of Europe due to it clashing with the more prestigious UEFA European Football Championships and the start of many domestic leagues. The suggestion that few, if any, European countries send a full strength side to the Olympic football tournament is backed up when looking at past results; the past four men’s Olympic competitions have been won by African and South American nations, whereas the last four FIFA world cups have seen three European victories.

Union flag flying.

Will the football teams at London 2012 fly the flag for a united Britain? Photo: Mrs TeePot

Just because Britain has largely ignored football at the Olympics for the past forty years doesn’t mean that we should continue to do so though. This summer sees the biggest sporting event the world has ever seen taking place right on our doorstep, won’t it be somewhat of an embarrassment if we don’t have a representative team of our national sport in a home Olympics?

Players from the home nations of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales should be free to combine and form a united GB&NI team for the Olympics. Indeed the countries respective football associations have been given assurances by the FIFA Executive Committee that competing as a united team in the Olympics would “not affect the existing individual status of the four British football associations”. So why then, do the associations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales still seem so against the idea?

Unfortunately it’s not just the respective associations that are opposed. A joint statement issued in 2006 by the fan associations of all four home nations noted their opposition to a combined Team GB at London 2012. They also cited a worry that participation could jeopardise their individual status. This view was reiterated by the Welsh fan association in 2011, and ticket sales for the football tournament at London 2012 don’t exactly suggest the public are desperate to get hold of them.

The associations themselves have admitted that they have no legal grounds to prevent any selected players representing Britain in the Olympics though. So should, as seems highly likely, Welsh stars such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey get picked by Stuart Pearce for London 2012 then it would be a personal decision as to whether they play or not. I think it’s fantastic that both players in question have publicly stated their desire to represent Britain and I hope that any other non-English player selected will also defy their association and play.

Whilst I have admitted that I wouldn’t be too upset to see football disappear from the Olympics I think that whilst it is still a part of the games we should compete in and make use of the tournament. Not only would it provide a lift to dispirited fans of international football to see young, passionate and proud footballers excelling on the Olympic stage but it would be a great experience for the players too. Imagine the confidence boost it would give to an English player left out of the Euro2012 squad or a Scottish player yet to experience life at a big tournament.

The event itself acts as an unofficial under-23 world cup so we should take it seriously, if a player is a late developer and hasn’t gone through the ranks of age-group international football then the Olympic tournament is a perfect place for them to shine. The same theory can be applied to a player cast aside from the international scene after U21 level but still shows potential.

Aaron Ramsey in action for Arsenal.

Arsenal starlet and Welsh captain Aaron Ramsey is likely to be named in Stuart Pearce's squad. Photo: Ronnie Macdonald.

I’m a firm believer that experience of tournament football and playing at a big event, be that an age-group international tournament or the Olympic games, can only help our nations’ footballers when it comes to a European Championships or a World Cup. So why do we stop our best young players going to the international tournaments and pass up the opportunity to gain such experience at the Olympics, the most high-profile sporting event on the planet? A gold medal for Argentina at the 2008 Beijing games certainly doesn’t seem to have done Lionel Messi any harm!

If we look towards the future of football at the Olympics then I see little to suggest that it will be removed from the games. The women’s competition is contested between full strength sides with no age restrictions and as such is regarded as more important in the women’s game. The advantage for the women is that their World Cup and European Championships take place in odd-numbered years, leaving national coaches with a full quota of players to pick from without risking burnout.

The strength of the women’s competition means that the men are very unlikely to have their chance of a medal taken from them. I could never imagine FIFA or the IOC allowing a situation in which one of the most played sports in the world is accused of discrimination because there was no male competition in the Olympics.

Football is coming home this summer whether we like it or not, so we may as well show the world that Great Britain and Northern Ireland are still proud to play the game that we gave them, as one united team.

Photos: Wembley Stadium – Martin Pettitt, Union flag – Mrs TeePot, Aaron Ramsey – Ronnie Macdonald

The Price of Loyalty

‘Home is where the heart is’, or so the saying goes at least, more and more though home seems to be wherever the biggest pay check is for today’s sporting stars. The idea of a club side being made up of entirely local players is now so outdated that in the Barclays Premier League it would come as a shock to have more than one or two local lads in the squad, let alone the starting 11. It seems there will never be a repeat of Celtic’s European Cup winning ‘Lisbon Lions’, all of whom were born within 30 miles of Glasgow.

Dog on train

A dog may be a man's best friend, but can we expect the same loyalty from our sporting stars? Photo: marc falardeau.

Of course there are still exceptions, true ‘one club men’ are few and far between though. People like Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard and Marcus Trescothick are a dying breed, seemingly being replaced by ‘hired mercenaries’ such as Ashley Cole, Kevin Pietersen and Gavin Henson. Should we criticise these people though? Or are their actions simply symptomatic of the way sport has changed since television money flooded in? Is it realistic to expect an athlete to forsake a greater salary and a higher quality of competition simply to remain at their childhood club? And is this even a problem? Do fans really care about where their players are from anymore? Or is success on the pitch all they worry about?

Sports fans are a fickle bunch and I would suggest that when their team is succesful, they don’t really worry about the origins of their players. Of course they would prefer to have a team of home-grown world beaters but that just isn’t feasible anymore. Even Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy has only half its intake from Catalonia and perhaps the most famous of their alumni to date is Argentinian maestro Lionel Messi. When a team isn’t doing so well, and is made up of foreign imports and players with no connection to the local area then it is very easy for fans to turn on them and voice their displeasure. It is at this point that calls are often heard to ‘blood the youngsters’ as they ‘can’t be any worse’, calls that are rarely heard when that same band of merry men are winning and the youth players daren’t be risked for fear of a dip in form.

So if fans show little loyalty to their players then why should the players show any loyalty in return? Could anyone say for certain that Gary Neville or Steven Gerrard would not have left their boyhood teams if they weren’t so succesful and so handsomely rewarded for their efforts? Indeed Gerrard did have his head turned by Chelsea in the summer of 2004 but decided to stay put and commit his future to Liverpool. A commendable decision but not exactly one that risked his family’s financial security, or his ambitions to play in the Champions league, or his position in the England squad.

Cashley cole

Ashley will forever be known by Arsenal fans as Cashley Cole. Photo: Jason Cartwright.

It is important to distinguish between talented and ambitious young players and those who move simply for the money. Fans will forgive a local young fledgling spreading their wings and flying off to clearer skies, providing they feel that said fledgling has served their apprenticeship, they’ve developed as much as they can at their home club and that they get a bit of money in return for the departing player’s services. What fans will not forgive is a player holding their club to ransom with contract demands that are perceived to be born out of pure greed. The perfect example of such a case is Ashley Cole, who allegedly declined to sign a new £55000 a week contract at Arsenal, apparently disgusted at their ‘derisory’ offer. He was also found guilty of touting his services to Chelsea whilst still under contract with Arsenal and fined £100000 for doing so, later reduced to £75000 after appeal.

The idea of a playing for your childhood club can often be relegated to no more than a dream for those growing up in America. The draft system there gives emerging talent little to no choice over where they will start their professional career, but for a select few the dream does come true. LeBron James is one such player, the high-school basketball sensation that didn’t bother with college and declared for the NBA draft as soon as possible having graduated high school. Hailing from Akron, Ohio, his local team were the Cleveland Cavaliers who fortunately for him had done particularly badly in the 2002-03 season and so had a high chance of getting the no.1 pick in the draft lottery for the 2003 draft. They did, and proceeded to select local hero James, seen by many as the saviour of basketball in Ohio.

Unfortunately he couldn’t quite bring the success that the state so craved, he almost single-handedly dragged the Cavaliers to the playoffs for five consecutive years from 2006-10 but failed to win the NBA championship, falling at the final hurdle in 2007. ‘King’ James was loved throughout Ohio, but when his contract came to an end at the end of the 2010 season he refused to confirm whether or not he would re-sign for his home franchise and so sparked a bidding war for his considerable services. The Miami Heat were the eventual winners, landing James, along with fellow free agent Chris Bosh, and the re-signed Dwyane Wade (all class members of the 2003 draft) to give them a superstar trio hopefully capable of bringing a second NBA championship to South Beach. The rather expensive gamble seems to be paying off as well, Miami currently lead the NBA Playoff Finals 2-1.

LeBron James protects the ball

LeBron James protects the ball in his Cleveland days, he couldn't do the same for his reputation though. Photo: Keith Allison.

James is now despised in Cleveland and widely disliked across the country, this didn’t have to be the case though. James had given seven years of his professional career to his home-state franchise and taken them to the edge a championship. Most people would forgive him leaving for pastures new and a better shot at a title his immense talents (James has two NBA MVPs, and countless other awards to his name at only 26) so richly deserve. It was the manner he did it in though which left a bad taste in America’s mouth, after making it clear that he wasn’t going to automatically re-sign for Cleveland the whole saga dragged on for far too long and finally came to a head with an hour-long special entitled ‘The Decision’, broadcast live on American sports network ESPN. It is reported that he didn’t officially inform Cleveland that he wouldn’t be re-signing for them until just minutes before the show went on air, a move widely criticised by veteran players.

Another similar example is the reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose, who grew up on the basketball courts of South Chicago. He now plies his trade for the Chicago Bulls having declared for the 2008 NBA draft as a college sophomore (2nd year) and been selected by the Bulls as the 1st overall pick. Rose is four years the junior of James, and is still showing off his wares in his home town but his career path does seem to be taking a similar trajectory to that of the fallen ‘king’. The journey so far; home town hero brought into a struggling side, takes a couple of years to get up to speed with the league but drags his team into the playoffs where they lose in the second round having been named the league MVP, has a familiar ring to it. Chicago do seem to have built a better supporting cast for Rose than Cleveland ever could for James, but only time will tell how many more barren years Rose can take before the lure of a championship ring at another franchise takes his fancy – or if it even will. Rose seems more of a down to earth character than James, he does his talking on the court and leaves it there, he is very thankful to his Mother for raising him, and his three elder brothers for teaching him to play on the tough neighbourhood courts of the windy city. So it remains to be seen whether he will turn his back on Chicago or whether he can become the next ‘Mike’ and deliver a championship to Chicago.

So there is still loyalty around in sport, but present in ever diminishing amounts. Money now talks louder than geographical allegiances ever did and it doesn’t look set to change any time soon. But are we expecting too much from our sporting stars when we the fans can promise very little in return? We’ll be loyal to our clubs, but should a player so much as dare to misplace a pass then we don’t hold back in letting them know how we feel about it. I’d like to know your opinions on whether players are too easily swayed by money nowadays and whether we’ll ever see the likes of that famed Celtic team again, or even get close! Leave a comment below and we’ll see what everybody thinks.

Photo credits: Dog – marc falardeau, Cashley – Jason Cartwright, LeBron – Keith Allison.

Brains vs. Brawn

You know the person, the battering ram in the school rugby team, the beanpole on the basketball court, the lightning quick winger in football, the kid whose physical attributes covered up for a lack of talent? Most of these people get found out when adolescence comes to an end and everyone else has caught up with them and they can no longer barge through, tower over or race past the little kid. Some of them slip through the net though, some of them maintain their physical edge and have just enough talent to remain successful, maybe even turn professional.

I myself was the beanpole on the basketball court. A growth spurt between middle school and secondary school resulted in a distinct height advantage when it came to trials for the year 8 basketball team. After the first year though I became less and less effective but I trained hard and worked on my passing and shooting enough to hold down a place for the four years until 6th form, relying on the more talented ball handlers around me to get by.

Blake Griffin

6' 10" Griffin is quite a physical specimen. Photo: Keith Allison.

The idea for this blog came from listening to an NBA pundit commenting on Blake Griffin, the 6 ft 10 in record-breaking rookie, that he couldn’t wait for Griffin to become a basketball player as well as an athlete. The first rookie to be named in the All Star team since Tim Duncan in 1998, winning all six Rookie of The Month awards available in the Western Conference and the first rookie since 2000 to average 20 points and 10 rebounds a game, Griffin has had a stellar opening season in the NBA with a struggling LA Clippers side.

Is he actually a good basketball player though? Well he can definitely dunk, winning the Slam Dunk Contest during the All Star Weekend showed that, but is that all he can do? Like many power forwards he has a poor shooting percentage from the free throw line, his mid range jump shot needs work and if the Clippers want to build a successful team around him he must show more variety in the paint, doing more than just bullying opponents with his size. He shares the ball well though, averaging 3.8 assists per game, and showed signs of maturing as the season went on.

With all his success so far though, does he really need to improve? He already has enough physical presence to be an All Star for years to come, better judges than me though have deemed that he could be so much more. Were he to develop and mature as he seems capable of, he could become one of the all time greats and still be effective when his body starts to fail him in his later years.

Griffin has made it to the NBA and been very successful using his physical advantage but has the capability to prolong his career with genuine talent, others aren’t quite so lucky. Theo Walcott is still striving to convince many that he is anything more than a sprinter who can kick a ball, the same can be said for Aaron Lennon. OK I’ll admit that this is a rather black and white view of their footballing prowess but there is little doubt that were they not blessed with such electric pace they wouldn’t be where they are today.

Darren Fletcher warms up.

Darren Fletcher may not be the most skilful of footballers but that hasn't stopped him. Photo: Andrea Sartorati

Cardiovascular endurance can also elevate one’s performance levels above those around them, not because they are more skilled but because they simply can go for longer. Would Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung be continually trusted by Sir Alex Ferguson to play in Manchester United’s most important games if they could not run for days on end? They certainly aren’t the most naturally skilful players at Sir Alex’s disposal yet they can be relied upon to close people down and track back to make a saving tackle when perhaps some so-called ‘flair players’ couldn’t be.

The list of sport stars ‘making the most of what god gave them’ is endless; would the Williams sisters be so good at tennis if they couldn’t hit the ball harder than anyone else? Would Rafael Nadal be the world no. 1 if he couldn’t chase every ball down and seemingly not tire? Would Michael Phelps be the all-conquering swimmer he is without his disproportionately large wingspan and size 14 feet? Would Usain Bolt be so fast if he wasn’t 6′ 5″?

Lionel Messi playing for Barcelona.

Messi is successful despite his diminutive stature. Photo: Prettyfriendship.

More importantly though, are all these questions rather pointless? Is it the same as asking, what if Lionel Messi wasn’t so skilful? Or what if Phil Taylor didn’t practice darts so much? Isn’t sporting competition all about celebrating the variations in people’s abilities? Team sports would be incredibly tedious if everyone shared the same qualities. And where would athletics be without the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences between us all?

It may seem unfair that the big kid always gets picked ahead of you at school and that skilled individuals may be overlooked for those with more obvious physical advantages. But those people will get found out eventually, or they’ll have had to work incredibly hard to forge a path for themselves where less determined people may have failed. The great thing about sport is that there is a place for almost anyone, hard work can get you a long way and this is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. After all, we can’t all be Roger Federer!

Photo credits:

Blake Griffin: Keith Allison;  Darren Fletcher: Andrea Sartorati;  Lionel Messi: Prettyfriendship