The Year in Review: Sport
Too much hope. Not enough glory
Friday 28 December 2007
There were pockets of brilliant resistance to the idea that sport is all played out. But this, you hope, will always be so in a land where so many of the world's games were given their life and laws. Even so, the performances of character and skill could, in all honesty, only be seen as fragments of glory bobbing on an unpromising tide. The high points of British sport in 2007 did not constitute a collective habit, a culture of hard commitment to being the best in the world and how could they when the erstwhile Ashes hero Freddie Flintoff behaved like a drunken oaf during the Cricket World Cup, and the future knight of the realm Ian Botham announced from his television broadcasting booth that his only crime was to have been found out?
This was by way of a prelude to the greatest discouragement of all; the fact that not one Englishman could be trusted to renovate the ruins of the national football team.
First, though, the evidence that the soul of the nation's sport was not entirely dead. The golfer Justin Rose was a serious contender in all the major championships and finished top of Europe's order of merit, a steely victory over the premature triumphalism that enveloped him as a teenager when he made a splash in his first Open at Royal Birkdale, and Sir Michael Bonallack, head of the Royal and Ancient, declared that he was Britain's answer to Tiger Woods. It was a statement so witless it might have been authored by Murray Walker, the king of the Formula One faux pas, but then Walker's successors did seem to be on much firmer ground when they eulogised the sensational debut of Lewis Hamilton.
In boxing, Joe Calzaghe's enduring brilliance as the undisputed world super-middleweight champion was recognised as he won the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year, a simple ceremony transformed into a showcase, like a goalkeeper making even his most functional work seem like the last word in spectacle. "That bugger could make a banquet out of a cheese biscuit," declared the ancient observer on seeing one keeper's theatricals. Heaven knows what he would have made of a night when finishing second, as England did in the Rugby World Cup, was enough to make you team of the year.
It was impossible to swim away from the backswell of hubris, the disease that enveloped the national game of football, having already engulfed the cricketers in Australia. It was so pernicious that a few days after England's humiliating dismissal from the European Championships at Wembley, the former golden boy Michael Owen still felt able to declare that not one of the Croats who weaved such effective patterns against his team could have hoped to make it into the England side that was so utterly outplayed and out-thought.
So entered Fabio Capello, a winner all his career as a player and coach with the great teams of Italy, and as the manager of Real Madrid. Here was a man to impose reality, someone to chase away the celebrity years of David Beckham, the spineless leadership of Sven Goran Eriksson, the toleration of the mediocre dressed up as a "golden generation". It was a premise that mocked names like Finney and Matthews, Moore and Charlton, and you could be sure that Capello's first team talk would flush it away.
Some saw Capello's appointment as a betrayal. Others saw it as an ultimate moment of truth. The football we gave to the world, which developed according to the instincts of Brazil, the discipline of Germany and the sheer intelligence of Italy, might just be on the point of return, albeit in foreign hands.
Among those with reservations were two of the heroes of 1966, the year England won their only World Cup. Sir Bobby Charlton said: "It hurts badly that we have reached the point where we have to have someone from abroad to run our national team. Down the years, English coaches always had a great reputation abroad, but it is hard not to agree that someone like Capello represents something that no English coach currently represents... that is, a body of work that simply speaks for itself."
Charlton's old England team-mate George Cohen revered their winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey, and his reaction to the Capello appointment was filled with ambivalence. "I know Alf would have been shattered if he had known that we would reach a day when no Englishman was considered up to the job," he said. "He always believed that players grew when they pulled on the England shirt, and I can hear him asking how an Italian, however good at his job, however knowledgeable, could understand how an English footballer thought and reacted. Still, if you asked me which Englishman I would appoint, I really couldn't come up with a name."
The scandal had been a long time in the making. For so many years, the development of the English game under the aegis of the Football Association was in the hands of schoolteachers and bureaucrats who despised the professional game. The long-time director of coaching, Charlie Hughes, once said that we had nothing to learn from the Brazilians. He favoured Pomo football that revolved around "positions of maximum opportunity". This meant bypassing the classic source of creativity, midfielders of vision and science a breed virtually expunged from English football but for the odd throwback (Paul Scholes) and import (Cesc Fabregas) and hitting long balls. This, as long ago as the World Cup of 1990 in Italy, provoked a Brazilian watching England play Ireland to say: "Why do you English call it football? You play airball."
The result was grimly evident on a wet, cheerless November night when Croatia operated on an entirely different level of skill and efficiency. The arrival of Capello, some cried, was a terrible reproach to English football. Of course it was. But then, sooner or later, someone had to hold up a mirror. English football's reflection was bedraggled, even ugly... but then so much of the sport of 2007 was that, if not worse.
For a while it seemed that the death of Bob Woolmer, the fine England Test cricketer and coach of first South Africa, then Pakistan, during the misadventure of the World Cup in the West Indies might just expose the fact that his sport was not only corrupt but also murderous. Match-fixing charges had long plagued cricket, and the suggestion that Woolmer had been the victim of conspirators desperate to prevent revelations in a forthcoming book followed, inevitably, the belief of Jamaican police that he had been murdered in his hotel room. When it was finally ruled that death was the result of natural causes, Australia's victory, and confirmation of their relentless domination of the game, was the slightest of memories.
So too, at least in the minds of the British Olympic Association, was the fact that Christine Ohuruogu had missed three drug tests before serving a year's suspension and re-emerging as a dazzling winner of the 400 metres in the IAAF World Championships in athletics. She sailed through her appeal against the BOA rule that anyone convicted of a drug-related offence was automatically banned from the Olympics. There was almost universal approval in athletics circles; she will, after all, be a centrepiece of national pride when the London Olympics, inevitably soaring beyond even the most elastic of budget calculations, open in 2012. As 2007 was also the year in which Marion Jones tearfully confessed that her status as the wonderwoman of her sport had long been propped up by performance-enhancing drugs, there was, perhaps understandably, a sombre conclusion to be drawn that in arguably the world's most discredited sport, expediency had once again breasted the finishing tape.
However, track and field had no reason to feel isolated. In America, the Mitchell report confirmed that it wasn't only the muscled slugger Barry Bonds who had been feeding his talent with steroids. Baseball was separated from some of the last of its "take me out to the ball park" romance by the conclusion that drug abuse had become a rite of spring, summer and fall.
The European football authority, Uefa, also came to a gloomy conclusion: Asian betting markets had been the influence behind a slew of tainted European Championship qualifying games, though none of them had involved England, whose failures were profound but at least not illegal.
So where was the point of shining excellence? Where was the spirit to be uplifted? Not, sadly, amid the horrors of Carnoustie, where the admirable Irishman Padraig Harrington flirted with disaster so vigorously before winning his first Open on the notorious 18th hole that you could only yearn for the champion's authority of Tiger Woods that had gone so unaccountably missing.
It was at Wimbledon that we were reminded how it is when a great sportsman reaches out for the best of his talent and his competitive character and produces a victory that you know will stand for all time as an example of some of the best of sport. Tennis was beset with grievous problems of its own, including a stream of allegations that match-fixing was rife, but Roger Federer rose above all the hand-wringing in his tumultuous triumph over the thrusting young Rafael Nadal. Bjorn Borg came along to see Federer exquisitely draw alongside his record of five consecutive Wimbledon titles. However, it was clear that long before the end, the final was fixed by the gods. We can only hope they have more of an appetite for the job in the new year.
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