Saturday, 14 December 2013

If It's December, It Must Be SPOTY Time...

2012 Sport's Personality of the Year, Bradley Wiggins, with runner up Jessica Ennis
Sunday see’s the BBC’s annual “oh aren’t we great at covering sport” puff piece now known as Sport’s Personality of The Year.  With sport’s rights now being divvied up between BSkyB and BT Sport for utterly exorbitant sum’s, Sports Review of the Year seems both like a bygone take of a modern era and out of place with it’s anglocentric triumphalism.

I mentioned a couple of years ago the issue’s surrounding the voting procedures, with august sporting publications Zoo & Nut’s being given a vote, while only one of Scotland’s national newspapers had a vote.  While the BBC have changed those rules, it’s interesting to note that the representatives from the print world are still based in London rather than divvied between London, Cardiff, Belfast & Glasgow/Edinburgh.  That’s probably not going to be noticed much this year, given the identity of the huge favourite.  That’s not to say this won’t be an issue in the future.

For all the years that I’ve been doing this blog, Sport’s Personality has never really had an outstanding favourite.  Going back, the last dead cert to win would have been Andrew Flintoff in 2005 (even though that Ashes series was more of a team collective than Botham’s Ashes of 1981, it’s just that Flintoff was involved in most of the key moments).  This year though, there’s only really going to be one winner.  Yet since July, Andy Murray hasn’t really been at the top of his game.  His defence of his US Open championships fell at the quarter final stages at the hands of Stanislas Wawrinka before succumbing to a back injury, as Rafa Nadal staged a remarkable comeback. 
That moment...

At the start of the year though, Djokavic and Murray were the new Nadal and Federer.  Djokavic gained revenge over Murray for his US Open defeat by winning his third straight Australian Open.  Murray, revitalised after missing Roland Garros sailed through in the grass in South London.  However, he made heavy weather of a quarter final against Verdasco, going two sets down before winning the next three.  He also made heavy weather of the semi final against Janowicz, losing the first set before coming through in four sets.   However Djokavic had come through a titanic match against Del Potro that broke the record for the longest Wimbledon semi final (Becker V Lendl’s four hour and 1 minute epic in 1989 was the previous longest semi, Djokovic won in 4 Hours and 44 minutes).  Djokovic was still slight favourite to regain the title he won in 2011.

Remarkiably though Murray won, essentially by out Djokovicing Djokavic.  His win (above) ended 36 years wait for a British single’s win, 77 since a Brit won the men’s singles championship and 113 years since a Scot won the men’s singles championship.  So we might as well wrap up the trophy now and post it off to Miami, right?

Well…  with this being a public vote, we can’t really be certain.  Remember there are years where the winner is greeted with a collective “What?!?”.  AP McCoy’s win in 2010 can best be described as Left field, while, Ryan Giggs, Zara Phillips and Steve Davis are other, er, strange winners.  Mansell won it again in 1992 when he eventually won the F1 drivers championship, when one of our Olympic champions (Christie, Gunnell or Jackson) would have been more apt (Come to think of it, Robin Cousins beat both Alan Wells and Daley Thompson in 1980…  WTF???).  While David Beckham’s Sport’s Personality win came off the back of a man of the match performance in a key World Cup qualifier against Greece.  So who represent’s Murray’s biggest obstacle to becoming, in the year of the referendum, the first Scot to win since Chris Hoy all of five years ago.  Who is the stop Muzza candidate?

The favourite for that position is probably Mo Farrah.  Nominated last year for his 5,000m and 10,000 double at the Olympics, this year he repeated that feat in the World Championships in Moscow (retaining the 5,000 crown that he had won in Daegu two years ago).  You do wonder sometimes what Farah has to do to win this award.  Prehaps knobble Murray and British Cycling.

With Cycling at an all time high in the British sporting consciousness, it seems strange to think that Chris Froome (right, in yellow - obviously) might not be following Wiggins and Cavendish in winning this award.  The 100th jaunt around France known as the Tour De France was a tougher edition than last year, with a climb up Ventoux as well as a double jaunt up Alpe d’huez.  Froome, given the leadership of team Sky after Wiggins injury during the Giro d’Italia, destroyed his rivals in the mountains, taking yellow at Ax 3 Domaines and winning an iconic stage win at Mont Ventoux.  Even almost crashing into his biggest rival, the returning Alberto Contador, on the descent into Gap could not halt his march to the Yellow Jersey.

Those three are the favourites to finish in the top three.  Of the others, Maybe Justin Rose who became the first Englishman to win the US Open since Jacklyn in 1971 in June, or Leigh Halfpenny – who starred as Wales retained their 6 Nations championships and also played a part in the Lions series win in Australia – their first series win since beating South Africa in 1997 – could break into the top three.

Froom, Farah or Rose will finish in the top three behind Murray come Sunday.  If there is a shock, I think that it will be Farah.  It will be a shock though, I can’t conceive that the first British winner of the Mens singles title at Wimbledon in 77 years won’t be crowned Sports Personality of The Year come Sunday.

Now, Auntie, about that idea for Sports Villain of the year…

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Not Easy

All roads lead here - The Maracana will host next years World Cup Final

Four years ago, the draw for the World Cup was received with some delight in English quarters.  It was perceived that in drawing the USA, Algeria & Slovenia, England had been given a good draw.  They’re not thinking that now that the draw for next years World Cup in Brazil has delivered England’s hardest draw since Italia ‘90.

First up for England will be the side that knocked them out of the European Championships last year. Italy’s win on penalties in Kiev will give them the psychological edge going into this tie.  Italy will need no introduction, with their most recognisable player being the former Manchester City forward Mario Balotelli.  Whether the change of kick off time from 9pm to 6pm local time will help or hinder both sides remains to be seen, the match will be tacking place in Manaus in the Amazon region of Brazil.

England’s next match isn’t any easier, even though it will take place in the cooler south.  Uruguay were semi-finalists four years ago, and won the Coppa America two years ago.  At least two of the three man forward line that got them to the semi’s will be there.  Of course one of the survivors is Luis Suarez, now of Liverpool, who bagged key goals against Mexico & South Korea.  The other survivor will be Paris St Germain’s Eddison Cavani.

England’s last group match will be against the seeded minnows of this group.  However, the name Costa Rica still sends shivers down the back of Tartan Army foot soldiers nearly a quarter of a century on from Cayasso, Conejo & Co’s shock win.  That tournament was the only time they reached the knock our phase of the World Cup, they beat a dispirited Sweden as well before a heavy loss to Czechoslovakia.  Since then, they were piped to qualification by Turkey (in 2002) and Ecuador (in 2006) after opening that tournament against Germany.

This is a hard draw for England to get.  Should they qualify though, England will play either the winners or the runners up from Group C.  This group consists of Columbia, Ivory Coast, Japan & Greece.  Not an insurmountable obstacle, however the hazards in wait in the quarter final stage may well spell the end for England.  If England somehow win this group, they will be seeded to play either Brazil or the Netherlands.  If England finishes runners up, they will be seeded to face Spain.

England’s group is tough, but there are other interesting groups that have been thrown up by this draw.  The holders Spain (right) begin their defence of the World Cup against the side they beat in Johannesburg four years ago, The Netherlands.  The highly fancied Chile, who were also drawn in the same group as Spain four years ago, and Australia make up that group.  Brazil open the tournament against Croatia on 12 June, while the team that topped our qualifying group – and many people’s fancy as dark horses, Belgium – find themselves in a group with Algeria, South Korea and Russia.  Unfortunately for Belgium, their second round tie (should they qualify) will be against the survivors from group G – Germany, Portugal, Ghana & USA.  Arguably Group G is a tougher group to call than England’s group with lots of little sub plots going on.  Not least Jurgen Klinsman’s reunion with his former assistant during the 2006 World Cup.

To return to England though.  This is a tough group.  Funnily enough, there’s little in terms of past results between these teams.  England have only faced Italy in a World Cup finals match in the third place playoff in 1990 (Italy won 2-1 in Bari), though they did play each other in qualifying for both the 1978 (Italy wining 2-0 in Turin, England winning 2-0 at Wembley) & 1998 (Italy winning 1-0 at Wembley, 0-0 in Rome) tournaments.  England’s last finals match with Uruguay goes back further as this tie opened the 1966 tournament. 

While this group is a hard group, it is not impossible for England to escape.  Maybe the best thing to come out of this draw is that it will temper the hubris that instantly inflates whenever England reach the finals of a tournament.  Maybe we will see a more sober assessment of their chances than we have seen in many years, that those chances are not good. In short, there will be no emperor like there has been in 2002, 2006 & 2010, which might not be a bad thing for Hodgson.