I Love the World Cup, But… (Part II)

I Love the World Cup, But... Part II

I think it’s become pretty clear in the last couple of days that there’s only going to be one winner for idiocy amongst the 736 players who have been in Brazil representing their countries at the World Cup. Luis Suarez just can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble. In the last few days, the media has unsurprisingly been saturated with stories, discussion and the usual humorous responses to the Uruguayan vampire’s latest indiscretion (a selection of which you can find at the bottom of this post).

Meanwhile, there are lots of naughty – if marginally less criminal/disgraceful/unbelievable depending on your viewpoint – tactics used in most games by players, that I would like to see kicked out of the beautiful game. Some of these guys are footballing gods, but even some of the best players are amongst the worst for these annoying habits. 

Footballers are obviously well-known, and widely criticised, for diving and generally overdramatising things on the pitch. I won’t go on about it too much because we all know what I’m getting at. If I was a referee, any player who did any form of log roll would be yellow carded for melodrama. A social media statistician posted this on Twitter this week:

Click to view larger image

Click to view larger image

This suggests Brazil have been the biggest injury fakers so far, but Honduras have spent the most time rolling around on the floor (ironic given that their main strategy has seemed to be kicking the other team as much as possible).

In addition to the injury feigning, the number of handballs that go unpunished astounds me. It appears that players who decide they have been fouled have the right to grab hold of the football and stop play before the referee has blown his whistle. If you want to pick up the ball, play rugby (although you’ll have to toughen up a bit lads).

Then there’s the constant appealing. Every time the ball goes off the pitch, any player even vaguely close by immediately sticks their hand up in the air to claim it’s their ball. It wouldn’t surprise me to see someone boot the ball off the side of the pitch with nobody within ten yards of them and still attempt to claim the throw in. Whilst we are on the subject of ridiculous appeals, the “I got the ball” gesture is another irritating one. Firstly because the “ball” actually turns out to be another player’s leg most of the time. And secondly because just about poking the ball with your big toe two seconds after completely pole-axing an opponent does not mean it isn’t a foul.

Towards the end of games in particular, the amount of time-wasting is also quite amazing. The statutory 30 seconds of added time for goals and substitutions doesn’t get close to making up for the antics of many players during the final moments of a match. A player being substituted trudges off at 0.2mph, shaking hands with as many team mates as possible and of course detours to thank the referee – the guy he has spent most of the last 85 minutes swearing at. Given the rolling substitutions in hockey (which can occur over 60 times per match in international games), these shenanigans seem more than a little unnecessary. 

The goalkeepers also indulge in some silly time-wasting in the final minutes. Run of the mill catches suddenly start to be followed by a dramatic fall to the ground and a prolonged cuddle with the ball. Goalies get away with far too much in general if you ask me. Even the slightest contact with a keeper on a cross or corner is usually given as a foul against the attacking team. These would never be given as penalties if it was the other way around, so why are they so over-protected? That said, goalies can also provide the most excitement for any corner kick in the closing minutes of a game. You know a team is desperate to score when their goalkeeper legs it 90 yards to join in with the fun. I don’t think the historical ratios of goalkeepers scoring headers are probably that high, but it doesn’t half add to the excitement in a 0-0 draw you’ve stuck with for 89 minutes. 

As I said in my last entry, this World Cup has been brilliant. The goals have continued to flow, a few unexpected teams have progressed from the group stages and players like Messi, Neymar and Robben are shining on the greatest stage. The refereeing has also been extremely good so far. But these little tricks and bits of gamesmanship by top footballers are an irritation that niggles away at me. Let’s hope for more drama in Brazil, but with a little less of the melodramatics. 

A tasty selection of Suarez’s best bites (sorry)…

Suarez viral jokes

 

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I Love the World Cup, But… (Part I)

World Cup 2014

Now that the Hockey World Cup is done and dusted, we can turn our attention to that little festival of football going on in Brazil. So far, it’s been brilliant. There have already been spectacular goals and major upsets, and it’s now getting to ‘squeaky bum time’ for a few teams and the fans that follow them. But I can always find something to moan about!

The English TV Pundits
Most of these so-called experts may as well be sat in the pub chatting for all the insight they are able to give us. The BBC’s Gary Lineker is good, but his orange skin tone becomes more alarming the longer you look at it. Alan “state the obvious” Shearer and Mark “could I be more negative?” Lawrenson are easily outdone by Thierry Henry on both knowledge and successful command of the English language. Plus Thierry’s presence must keep a few girls who are being forced to watch footy happy. Meanwhile, the usually irritating adverts on ITV provide a welcome break from Adrian Chiles’ sweat patches. 

It’s EVERYWHERE
Newspapers, the Internet, the TV, advertising. As well as the usual beer and sports brand adverts, all kinds of companies attempt to cash in by tenuously linking their products to the World Cup. Castrol oil, Beats headphones and even Durex have got involved this time around. Once every four years, the global game really does take over the world. I actually like football. For someone who doesn’t, this must be one hell of a painful month.

The Commentary
Phil Neville has had a pretty hard time since his debut as a commentator last week. Yes, he is a bit boring and yes, perhaps you could do better. But is this much different to most football commentators? It’s amazing how many times you hear an ex-footballer (who often wasn’t actually that good at playing himself) say, “He has to score that” or “That isn’t good enough at this level”. It’s so lucky they had perfect careers and never made a mistake! Tony Pulis criticised a referee for sending off a player, believing the ref should do everything possible to keep players on the pitch. He didn’t make much mention of the fact that Pepe had (not unusually) done something stupid and reckless which is a red card offence. How about the players do everything possible to stay within the rules?

The good old English Press
They can never quite find a happy medium. They’re either busy telling us that, “We’re definitely going to win the World Cup!” or telling us who we should blame for the inevitable failure before it even happens. Wayne Rooney – who was England’s top goalscorer in the qualifying campaign, ran furthest in their match against Italy, and who set up their solitary goal – is currently being portrayed as the villain. Even if he misses an open goal tonight and it all goes wrong, it’s amazing how easily Rooney’s role in getting England to the World Cup in the first place will be forgotten. As far as I can see, the journalists who constantly stir things up don’t really care how England get on at all… as long as they get their story. In addition, the number of column inches dedicated to football means that other top level sport that deserves its fair share of coverage at the moment – think hockey, cricket, rugby – finds it even harder to get it. 

Life in Brazil
As well as the excitement and positivity around the World Cup, there has also been tragedy and controversy. Whilst millions of Brazilian Real have been spent on building stadia and developing infrastructure for the thousands of spectators, around 16% of Brazil’s 200 million inhabitants are thought to live in poverty. Millions have been involved in riots and protest marches have been staged to bring attention to the financial cost of the World Cup in a country where many people do not have adequate healthcare, accommodation, education or wages. At least eight workers have died in the construction of stadia for the tournament and Brazil’s crime rate is high. The World Cup is a festival of football and it gives billions of people worldwide much to celebrate. But it also raises important issues about life beyond sport. 

Despite the irritating commentary, the emotional roller coaster of being an England fan, and the genuine moral issues raised by extreme spending on sports events in countries with stretched economies, I still love the things that surround the World Cup. There’s drama, excitement, the Panini sticker book, and the betting I do against my Dad on every game. The best players are out there on the biggest stage, in a country that loves partying and loves football. And at least the authorities had the brains to ban vuvuzelas this time around!

 

‘I Love the World Cup, But… (Part II)’ coming soon!

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The Not-So-Easy Life of a Hockey WAG

the no.1 fan

I didn’t care if I ended up in row Z, surrounded by screaming Oranje fans. Once the game had finished and my heart rate had settled down to an acceptable level, I spent most of last night figuring out how to get back to The Hague to support the England boys in the World Cup semi final on Friday and their medal match on Sunday. Forget Brazil – the real World Cup is on right now.

I’m fighting a few demons of my own about not having the chance to actually play in this World Cup. But having experienced the competition myself as a player eight years ago, this time it has instead been another outing as a “hockey WAG” for me. As it turns out, this can be a bit of a roller coaster ride too, which is what I’ll attempt to paint a picture of here. 

Presumably, life as the wife or girlfriend of a hockey player is rather different to that of a football WAG. Speaking personally, I don’t do my hair and nails for the occasion, and I wear a sensible coat and comfortable shoes. I understand hockey and I’m definitely there to see, not to be seen. As one of my friends told me today, I’m “the opposite of a WAG”! There’s certainly no first class flights, 5* hotels or VIP seats. That’s not a bad thing though – meeting and mixing with other supporters and the players’ families at the stadium is all a big part of the fun. I have already spent a few days in Holland watching, largely on my own, and I enjoyed it without ever feeling too lonely. 

Supporting on your own can be a strange experience. I suppose it’s a bit like going to the cinema alone – even though it’s all about what you’re watching, a quick word to someone about what is happening, or a simultaneous laugh, grimace or celebration makes it an experience best shared. The difference to a trip to the cinema is that when I watch hockey, I know firsthand the hard work and dedication put in, and the pain and desire the England players feel. The last ten minutes of a close game you care about is a million times worse to watch than to play in. Mostly because I’m desperate for them to win… and a tiny little bit because I don’t want to have to try to help (usually in vain) to pick up the pieces afterwards if they don’t. 

There are a few things that can be pretty irritating when fulfilling WAG duties. Perhaps I’m a spoil sport, but people with vuvuzelas should probably just steer clear of me. Mexican waves are actually just annoying interruptions to my view of the pitch – as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t want to watch the game properly, don’t sit in the stadium. A snatched five minutes of post-game conversation with a tired, sometimes sweaty and occasionally emotional boyfriend can make you feel better and worse all at once. 

Anyway, I’ve managed to sort out the weekend. A very early morning flight and a lonely ticket up in the Gods will be totally worth it to give a little extra voice to those England boys playing their hearts out in the World Cup semi final. If I get to be the only person in a red and white shirt celebrating madly amidst a sea of orange ones, it’ll be even better. Come on the boys!

Sporting Habits I’d Like to See Hit For Six

Ball boys bring towels to Nadal of Spain during his men's singles match against Klizan of Slovakia at the French Open tennis tournament in Paris

It’s been a few days since I have been able to write an entry, largely because I have been fortunate enough to spend a few days in Paris on a mother-daughter jolly. In addition to some sightseeing, I managed to get us tickets for a bit of French Open action at Roland Garros. As well as the excitement of seeing some Grand Slam tennis, this gave me the chance to do some firsthand research on the players themselves. I love tennis, but some of the players have a few rather irritating habits which crop up rather more than seems necessary.

First of all, there’s the grunting. This has been a matter of debate in recent years, with a number of the female players reaching quite astounding volumes and pitches in the yelps and screams that accompany their shots. If, for some strange reason, you want to remind yourself of this awful noise, click here. Annoyingly, my research did yield some videos of Sharapova, Azarenka and Serena screeching even during practice, but I’m absolutely convinced that there is no need for this assault on our eardrums. I have no doubt that hitting the ball hard under extreme fatigue requires considerable physical effort, but it seems to be too strange a coincidence that the screams get louder when there is more pressure on a point. Players should disrupt their opponents’ rhythm and win points through what they do with their racquets, not the amount of noise that they can make. As far as I’m concerned, “Quiet please” isn’t just a request that should be directed at the crowd.

Then there is the irritating towel request. I appreciate things can get sweaty out there. I understand that sometimes players use little routines to help refocus their minds after a point. But the ‘towel wiping face’ sign or simply a point towards the chair at the back of the court is a bit annoying. It can also cause fashion trouble: Pete Sampras regularly used to end up with bits of white fluff stuck in the stubble he had miraculously managed to grow in the space of one tennis match. In all honesty I’m not sure if towel provision and umbrella holding should fall within the ball-kids’ remit anyway. Before we know it Rafa will be asking the poor little kid throwing him balls to pop over and actually wipe his face for him too.

Is there any need to bounce the ball before a service in tennis? Novak Djokovic has been known to bounce the ball more than 20 times before hitting a serve. I’m sure at times he is doing it to catch his breath, but it has clearly become over the top. This is also one of those interesting routines that has been taken up by Joe Bloggs playing Tuesday league at his local tennis club. I bet that anyone reading this who plays tennis has picked up this habit from watching top-level players and bounces the ball at least three or four times before serving. I know I do. That’s the thing with all these habits – it’s very easy to pick them up, even if it’s subconscious. I remember when I used to do athletics as a kid, my Dad told me not to bother doing a unnecessary little footwork routine at the beginning of my long jump run up. All this could do is increase the margin of error for my run up. Of course, I’d only started doing it because I’d seen top jumpers do it on TV. Incidentally, I also used to rub a cricket ball on my trousers despite having no idea why ‘proper’ cricketers did this, and raise both of my arms before taking a corner in football when it definitely wasn’t a tactical signal for my teammates waiting in the box. If you are pretending to take a rugby penalty, can you do it without assuming the ‘Jonny Wilkinson’ pose? What about shouting out random numbers before throwing an American football? Sometimes our imitations of these habits are done tongue in cheek or for a bit of fun, but often we include them without thinking. Many habits started out for good reason, but it’s amazing how easily they are copied by others (both elite and amateur) and even become ingrained into the nuts and bolts of the action itself.

“HOWZAT!”… A catch is nearly always followed by the cricket ball being thrown up in the air. Basketball players and curlers hold their pose after shooting a free throw or releasing the stone. Golfers (and the fans watching them) shout vainly at the ball to “get up!”, “bite!” or “get in the hole!” long after it has been struck. I still don’t really get why synchronised swimmers and gymnasts are expected to smile at the end of their routines: to me, their apparent level of happiness should have no bearing on how their performances are judged. I can’t even smile that widely, never mind do the splits.

Strange habits and expectations have also influenced the physical actions and interactions of players (and officials) in sport. Usain Bolt has done amazing things for athletics, but for some reason every other male sprinter now feels that they must develop a pose for their fleeting moment in front of the cameras before the race. Meanwhile, before a football or hockey match, there is now an unprecedented number of handshakes required: The captains must shake hands with each other and all of the officials… the coin is tossed… all of the handshakes are then repeated. Batsmen in cricket seem to be physically incapable of having a tactical chat halfway up the wicket without touching gloves. Sportspeople simply can’t get enough of high fiving. In the tennis I watched at Roland Garros, I honestly don’t think any of the doubles pairs played two consecutive points without a high five (or a quick bum tap). The Bryan brothers have taken this to new levels by celebrating victories with a chest bump: Ridiculous.

Considering that even fully grown adults across the world who play sport for fun have integrated the idiosyncrasies of famous sports stars into their routines, it’s no surprise that kids do the same thing. Therefore, whilst most of the examples above are a bit of fun, there is a serious side to this too. Footballers diving and rolling around on the floor, feigning injury, are seen and probably subsequently imitated by millions of kids. This isn’t a good thing. Lots of sportspeople have habits that are probably irrelevant in terms of the execution of skills, but have somehow become a deeply ingrained part of their routines. I’m certain that some of them have surfaced as mild(ish) forms of gamesmanship. Other habits are genuinely unnecessary, irritating and even damaging, and I wouldn’t miss them if I never saw them again.

Finally, let’s return to tennis (weak pun, in case you didn’t spot it yourself). It is an unwritten rule that before serving, tennis players absolutely must inspect at least five balls before they choose which one to smack up to the other end of the court. These tennis balls are basically all the same. They are replaced every seven games. They are all a brighter yellow than any tennis ball I have ever played with. Just take two, put one in your pocket and get on with it. And by get on with it, I mean bounce the ball once if you absolutely must. Throw it up. Hit it.

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Have I missed anything? Which sporting habits annoy you? Feel free to comment!