terça-feira, 15 de dezembro de 2009

First Impression

Immediately on landing at Johannesburg, I am hit by a wall of “2010”. Everywhere you look there are billboards, adverts and sponsors proudly proclaiming that the World Cup is coming to Africa. There appears a real willingness among the residents to show off all the best parts of their country to the world. Everything is geared towards “Twenty-Ten”, new train lines are being hastily constructed to reduce the reliance of the car, the highways are being expanded to six lanes to cope with the increased burden they’ll have to support in June, but most of all, security is of the uppermost importance.

For the tourist, this is fantastic news, assuming your willing to pay the extra rand for the benefit. So keen is everyone to avoid the bad press that would follow any tourist trouble that you almost feel forbidden to do anything even vaguely dangerous, which includes taking public transport. So I in backpacker mode, trying to keep costs to a minimum felt obliged to take a taxi from J’burg to Pretoria for the princely sum of 350 rand (about £30), and even that had to be haggled down from 450. The very thought of me even considering any other option horrified the locals- “You can’t do that, you’ll be robbed”, they warned. 

Whether this is just a veneer of concern for your wellbeing that vanishes as soon as you leave the confines of the airport remains to be seen, but certainly as first impressions go it was a positive, albeit a more expensive, one. How deep that 2010 veneer runs will be interesting to note as my African adventure meanders on…

      * * * *    * * *     * * *    * * *   * * *   * * *   * * *   * * *   * * * *

On another (more British) note, as my Lufthansa flight started to descend into Munich, the captain cheerily informed us that the current temperature in the Bavarian capital was -5°C! Did nooo get an agenda about that, kitted out as I was with about 4 pairs of shorts but nothing more than a light jumper on the keeping warm front.

domingo, 13 de dezembro de 2009

2009: The Year of the Graduate

With an ever-increasing number of school leavers flooding off to university, but with graduate opportunities seemingly fewer and farther between, the graduation saturation point must be fast approaching. This year alone, up to 40,000 new graduates will still be unemployed come the turn of the year. Yet the myth is still peddled that a university education is the key to unlocking the gateway to everyone's dream job. However, the reality is somewhat starker. Rather than a degree throwing off the shackles of working in the service industry or going from temp job to temp job that provided essential funding for further education, that same degree begins to appear like a millstone around the graduate's shoulders as he still finds himself going cap in hand to recruitment agencies, willing to take whatever they offer, but this time saddled with burdensome debts.

Tony Blair's Labour Party was famously ushered into power on the back of a manifesto that screamed “Education; Education; Education”, and in their 12 years in Government there has been a substantial rise in both the number of universities and the number of people choosing to pursue further education. Although we haven't yet reached the magic figure of 50 percent of school leavers choosing the university option, that reality is not far off.

However, surely it is now time to rethink this blind pursuit of providing university for everyone. Today, we have built up a perception that without a degree, you are almost a second class citizen, and anyone that works with their hands rather than with a computer must be inferior. Conversely, those in possession of degrees feel they must be on exorbitant salaries. But with almost half of young people now going to university, degrees are becoming increasingly devalued. Now, rather than making you stand out from a crowd, a degree has almost become a minimum requirement for job hopefuls- and an expensive one at that!

So 2009 has seen 260,000 new graduates pouring out onto an already over-burdened job market. Thousands are competing for one or two positions within companies that often reward the efforts of applicants by not even providing them with the common courtesy of a generic rejection or an acknowledgement of receipt. Thus, the hopefuls are left in limbo wondering and waiting before the slow realization dawns on them that they have been unsuccessful once again. The whole process can be demoralising, especially having worked for three or more years to reach this point, our bright young things having their dreams dashed and knocked back on an almost daily basis.

The culture has to change.

University should return to being a place of academic excellence rather than merely an expected norm. The derogatory stance towards manual work has to change to a point where it is considered a viable alternative to academia.

2009 has been the year of the ox: apt given the thick skins that this year's graduates have had to develop.

quarta-feira, 26 de agosto de 2009

Arsenal brush aside Celtic in Champions League play-off

Arsenal assured their place in this season's Champions League group stages with a commanding 3-1 win over Celtic at the Emirates Stadium.

The Gunners were without their captain Cesc Fabregas who was missing with a hamstring injury but still to the chance to rest Robin Van Persie, knowing that Celtic faced an uphill task to progress after last week's 2-0 defeat at Parkhead.

Although Eduardo da Silva poked the ball just wide early on, the balance of play was fairly even for the majority of the opening stages, with attempts on goal from both sides few and far between.

Despite their two-goal advantage, Arsene Wenger's boys were far from their fluent best with Celtic's midfield duo of Scotts Brown and McDonald working hard to disrupt the English side's rhythm.

Both of the North Londoners goals last week having an element of fortune about them, tonight's opener continued that lucky trend. Eduardo went down after minimal contact between himself and Artur Boruc in the 28th minute but did enough to convince the Spanish referee to award the home side a penalty, much to the Celtic 'keeper's obvious fury. The Croatian striker then dusted himself down to calmly slot his spot kick past the Polish international stopper.

McDonald thought he had equalised after tapping in a clever ball behind the Arsenal defence from Marc-Antoine Fortune. However, the goal was disallowed as he was rightly adjudged to have been offside.

Just before half-time, Eduardo was in the thick of the action again, with his curled effort having Boruc at full stretch. From the resulting corner, Niklas Bendtner should have done better than head wide when unmarked at the back post.

After the interval, Wenger seemed to have encouraged his team to go out and express themselves more, safe in the knowledge that they had a three-goal cushion to fall back on.

The Gunners' trademark fluidity and fluency was clearly in evidence in the 53rd minute as Emmanuel Eboue finished off a delightful Arsenal move firing home right footed to score his first European goal.

If the tie was not already over, then the second goal on the night and fourth on aggregate certainly ended the game as a contest. Soon after, Tony Mowbray, the Celtic manager, withdrew Aiden McGeady and Shaun Maloney, no doubt with half an eye on the Bhoys weekend fixture against unbeaten Hibernian.

Andrey Arshavin then slotted in a third goal in the 74th minute, almost immediately after coming on as a substitute, underlying the home side's second half dominance.

From then on, the Scottish side knew they were condemned to the consolation prize of the Europa League and began to look very tired and drained. Chances and openings presented themselves more regularly for Arsenal, whose youthful midfield drove them on in search of a fourth goal.

There was to be no fourth goal, in fact it was the Glaswegians who scored a spectacular consolation goal through Massimo Donati. With the very last kick of the game, the Italian midfielder volleyed home a diagonal ball, to score a goal that was reminiscent of Paulo di Canio's flying volley for West Ham some years ago. It was a fitting reward for the Bhoys' loyal supporters to take with them on the long trip home on a night when they saw their team exit the Champions League with more of a whimper than a bang. But the Scots will feel aggrieved at the nature of the home side's opening goal that set Arsenal on their way.

Despite conceding late on, the Gunners could content themselves that they had done more than enough to progress and can now look forward to taking their place in tomorrow's draw in Monaco for the Champions League group stages.

sexta-feira, 7 de agosto de 2009

Cobblers Preview

Last season ended on a crushing note, being comprehensively outplayed by a better footballing unit, then the main pre-occupation of early summer was whether our pacy winger who can score goals would seal his dream move to Spain. But unfortunately that is where the similarities between the Cobblers and Manchester United end. Ikechi Anya did convince Sevilla to sign him in one of the more surprising transfers of the summer but without the £80 million price tag of the Madeiran show pony.

2009-10 season sees Northampton Town once again in the lowest tier of league football after last season’s relegation from League One, despite a goal difference that hovered around zero throughout the year- surely something of a first. (Best goal difference to still be relegated?) This inevitably saw some of the first team’s better players seek pastures new, most notably Jason Crowe who has consistently been one of the best performers at the club, the only surprise being that he hadn’t moved on earlier. However a good bulk of the squad remains and with some astute additions in the shape of John Curtis and Steve Guinan to add experience to the existing youth as well as Foxes’ reject Billy McKay who has impressed in pre-season and could form a neat blend of pace and power with Bayo Akinfenwa, last season’s chief marksman, hope exists around Sixfields that our stay in League Two may be just a brief sojourn.

If on the field, the squad appears to be coming together nicely under the helm of Stuart Gray, who was sensibly retained as manager despite our fall from the third tier, off the field concerns dominate discussions. Northampton Borough Council’s collective dragging of heels about Chairman Cadoza’s planned retail expansion of the stadium and surrounding area has left many fans feeling frustrated and Cardoza unwilling to plough any more cash into the club until the uncertainty surrounding the area is resolved. For now it seems that “Sixseats” will continue to be the butt of many away fans. Away fans that will be coming from the likes of Burton and Aldershot rather than Charlton and Southampton, a prospect that seemed remote when at the turn of the year, the Cobblers were happily ensconced in their traditional lower mid table position that contented our limited ambition. Gone too are the local derbies with Peterborough making strides under the other Ferguson and Rushden and Diamonds’ fall once their Dr. Marten’s money vanished being as rapid as their rise with it. The “local” rival now is newly arrived Burton Albion, some 70 miles up the motorway. It doesn’t exactly set the pulses racing.

2009/10 will be a season of adjustment and no doubt frustration too, thinking what might have been but as the season draws closer and that horrible day away at Leeds becomes ever more distant, optimism slowly starts to creep in that Gray can bring some sunshine back to Northampton and return the Town straight back into League One.

terça-feira, 9 de dezembro de 2008

Lewis Hamilton vira campeão do mundo de Fórmula 1, por um único ponto, roubando o título a Massa

Novembro viu a mais dramática conclusão do Mundial de F-1 na história recente do desporto, quando o piloto inglês Lewis Hamilton derrotou o brasileiro Felipe Massa, só por um ponto.
Antes da final do Grande Prémio deste ano, o GP do Brasil em Interlagos, Hamilton tinha mais sete pontos que Massa. Então, o inglês só precisava de terminar a corrida em quinto lugar para ser campeão, ainda que Massa ganhasse. A poucas voltas do fim, ninguém podia ter previsto o drama que ia acontecer.

O brasileiro liderava confortavelmente o GP, enquanto Hamilton estava em quarto... mas então começou a chover.

Todos os líderes decidiram ir às boxes para trocar os seus pneus, excepto Timo Glock da Toyota. Agora Hamilton estava em quinto com Sebastian Vettel do Toro Rosso pressionando-o fortemente. E, no começo da penúltima volta, Vettel ultrapassou Hamilton, deixando o inglês em sexto lugar, posição que daria o título a Massa e a multidão brasileira em Interlagos ficou louca.
Na temporada passada, Hamilton perdeu o campeonato para Kimi Raikonnen, o companheiro de Massa, apesar de ter mais dezassete pontos que ele, com só mais duas corridas e parecia que a história se repetia.

Mas o drama não acabou aí. Glock teve muita dificuldade em manter o seu carro na pista com os seus pneus lisos e ambos Vettel e Hamilton o apanharam rapidamente. E, na última curva da última volta, os dois pilotos o ultrapassaram e Lewis Hamilton se tornou no campeão mais jovem na história da F-1.

Foi um Grande Prémio que superou todas as esperanças, nervos e calores. Se você é um fã de F-1, ou mesmo que não seja, a montanha-russa das emoções foi uma viagem inevitável durante o tempo em que os paulistas viram Massa, um herói local, dirigindo-se para o que parecia ser o seu primeiro título mundial. Contudo, é Hamilton que reina, supremo na volta final, mostrando a sua verdadeira classe.

A equipa da Ferrari sentiu-se com azar, com a margem da derrota, mas Massa foi magnânimo no final da corrida, dizendo: "Saio com um sorriso, sorriso de quem está orgulhoso pelo que fez, de ser brasileiro e de saber ganhar e perder." Sem dúvida, Massa vai voltar mais forte e vai ser uma ameaça grande para Hamilton, enquanto o britânico tentará defender o seu título de campeão do mundo. O dia foi bom para o desporto e também para os espectadores e isso reflectiu-se muito no que foi dito depois por várias pessoas.

Luís António, pai do ferrarista, declarava que, se o filho não era o campeão da F-1, "já é o campeão do Brasil."

Glock, que estava no centro do clímax dramático, disse: "Acho que os brasileiros não ficarão mais do meu lado. Lamento por Felipe, mas parabéns ao Lewis. Os dois fizeram uma grande temporada e ambos mereciam o título."

terça-feira, 13 de maio de 2008

Rio, you're Simply the Best

First of all, much as it pains me to say it, congratulations to Manchester United on winning the Premier League for the 10th time. Overall, they were the best team, playing some quite scintillating football at times along the way.

Most of the praise has been heaped on Cristiano Ronaldo for a quite remarkable season in which he has scored 31 League goals. Especially outstanding when you consider that he doesn’t play as a striker and when you add in the other goals he has contributed too. However, the real star of the team and the only truly indispensable player to United has been Rio Ferdinand.

A near ever-present this season, Rio has really been an immovable presence at the back for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, demonstrating the kind of consistent form and, in the absence of club captain Gary Neville, the leadership qualities necessary to prove that he is now the world’s best centre defender and potential England captain under Fabio Capello’s new stewardship.

In a campaign that has seen Fabio Cannavaro have a quite season at Real Madrid and Lucio deprived of the chance to prove himself against Europe’s finest in the Champions League, Ferdinand has been at the forefront of United’s march to the brink of a domestic and European double. In the process, he has shown himself to be the best defender around there is, most notably away in the Champions League quarter final against Roma, where he almost single-handedly kept United in the game with numerous crucial interceptions and blocks, allowing the Red Devils to take a vital 2-0 advantage home with them despite an otherwise unconvincing performance.

His partnership with Nemanja Vidic at the heart of the defence is the best pairing there is in the Premiership, and the main reason that the side has conceded a miserly 22 goals and kept 21 clean sheets. A big factor in United’s title win was that they were able to call upon the first choice defensive duo far more than the other title challengers. Whilst United have had Ferdinand and Vidic available for nearly all the season, starting 35 League games and 32 respectively, their nearest rivals Chelsea and Arsenal have had to make do without their first choice centre back pairings for large chunks of the season.

Chelsea’s club captain and talisman, John Terry has had an injury-disrupted season that has seen him start just 23 of the Blues’ Premiership fixtures, whilst his partner Ricardo Carvalho has only featured in 21 League games. Together the two form a solid rock that often leaves Petr Cech with little to do. The same cannot be said for their deputies, Alex and Tal Ben Haim.

Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal led the Premiership for much of the season but a terrible run in from February onwards saw them finish empty handed for the second season running as injuries all over their squad started to take their toll to leave them. But it was at the back where absences were most keenly felt. Summer signing Bacary Sagna has had a hugely impressive first season in English football, making himself one of the first names of the Gunners’ team sheet. However, when injury brought an early end to his season, Wenger decided to move Kolo Touré over to right back to cover for Sagna with Phillipe Senderos filling in alongside William Gallas. This left them horribly exposed at the back as Senderos breathes panic throughout the whole team, looking entirely unconvincing in everything he does. In total, he made 32 appearances for the North London side this season, with many saying that that’s 32 too many. A world-class centre back must be at the top of Wenger’s summer shopping list.

So whilst the two London sides have seen their key defensive players spend large amounts of time on the treatment table, United have been largely injury free- except for long-term absentee Gary Neville. In his place has been Wes Brown, who has had a something of a renaissance this year, which has seen him start both England games under the new manager. Having the calming presence of Rio guiding him through games has undoubtedly made life easier for Brown, allowing him to get forward and support the midfield in the knowledge that the man from Peckham will be there to effortlessly mop up any counter attacks. So assured have the performances of Brown and, in recent weeks, Owen Hargreaves been at right back that Neville’s absence has hardly been felt.

Under Ferguson’s gaze, United have always been filled with attacking verve and flair, possessing players capable of scoring goals from all over the pitch. Just a quick glance and the array of talents that the Scotsman has at his disposal prove that. In Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, United possess two of the finest passers of the ball currently playing. Ryan Giggs has been terrorizing Premiership defences for 16 years yet this season he’s had to compete with Nani and Ji-Sung Park for game time. And up front, the link up play between Carlitos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo leaves viewers agog. So whichever combination of players start, chances are it won’t be a goalless draw.

Remarkable Ronaldo maybe, and his scoring record this year will take some matching, but such is the abundance of attackers in the squad, Ferguson can cope without him if he were to suffer an serious injury, which he is yet to do. But if the Scotsman were to be without Rio for some time, he would have a real problem. If words alone cannot convince you, then perhaps stats will.

Since joining Manchester United for a British record £30 million in July 2002, Rio has won three Premiership titles out of the five full seasons he has played for the Red Devils, making 184 appearances along the way. In the one season that the Old Trafford faithful were denied him after he was banned from football for 8 months in January 2004 for forgetting to turn up to a drugs test, United finished a lowly third. He missed 36 games for United as a result of his suspension, during which the team won 17 games, drew 10 and lost 9- hardly title-winning form. In his time away, teams such as Wolves, Portsmouth, Boro’ and Man City took all three points off United. Contrast that with the 18 games either side of his ban. In the 18 games that preceded his absence, United were on top form recording 16 victories and just two defeats. Once he had completed his suspension, United won 13 out of the next 18 games, drawing four and only losing on one occasion. Man. U. fans across the globe must be praying he isn’t so forgetful a second time.

With each year that passes, Ferdinand is improving. Gone are the lapses in concentrations, the 2008 version is assured on the ball, quick and commanding in defence, and a real threat at set pieces, all done with effortless ease that combine to make him the best in the business. Such a shame he doesn’t have the opportunity to prove this at Euro 2008.

Maracanã or Molineux?

Before coming to Brazil in February, I imagined Brazil as the spiritual home of football, where on every patch of grass or dirt people would be kicking about a ball, or substitute, and at weekends hordes of people would descend on full to bursting stadiums, all over the country to watch their stars perform. Such was the Brazilian passion for “o jogo bonito”.

However, the reality is quite different. Apart from the “grandes clasicos”, such as the state finals, international games and clashes between city rivals, the majority of games are played out in front of quarter-full stadiums or even less. For example, on a recent visit to Rio de Janeiro, I went to see Fluminense take on Americano in the Campeanato Carioca at the world famous Maracanã. This magnificent stadium was recently redeveloped for the 2007 Pan-American Games, making it into a 92 thousand all-seated sporting theatre, rivalling any of the great stadia across the globe. However, being there amongst a crowd of just over six thousand, on a rain soaked evening, watching Fluminense labour to defeat Americano, has to be amongst the least edifying sporting events I have witnessed. The seemingly never-ending stream of swear words that poured forth from one disgruntled fan could be heard by everyone, so lacking of atmosphere was “O Templo do Futebol”. A help to my grasping of Portuguese it may have been, but a hindrance to the spectacle it certainly was.

Admittedly, the attendance was far better later on in the week when I saw Flamengo- Brazil’s biggest club- play host to Nacional of Uruguay in the Copa Libertadores but even then the stadium was probably just over half-full. The same could not be said for the equivalent games in England.

In the English Premiership, on average 36 thousand people turn out every week to see their respective teams win, lose or draw. Indeed 12 out of the 20 grounds in the league are more than 90 percent full, making it the fourth best-supported league in the world. Even English football’s second tier, The Championship, has 17 thousand weekly devotees, only a little lower than Serie A in Italy. This from a country that has a population of 60 million, compared to the 186 million who reside in Brazil.

The other thing that has struck me about Brazilian attendances, and indeed South America in general, is that there is hardly any away support. There doesn’t seem to exist the culture of travelling to obscure parts of the country to cheer on your team, as there is in England. Anyone that has experienced the roar of the away fans celebrating a late goal that has made their journey worthwhile, knows how addictive “away days” can be. Obviously the sheer size of Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country, coupled with poor highways and a non-existent train system make life far more complicated, but even in the local state championships, away fans are few and far between.

It would, however, be a complete fallacy to say that football isn’t at the forefront of Brazilians’ minds. Step in to any taxi across Brazil and as a male foreigner, within seconds you’ll be asked “Cual é seu time?” and before long you’ll be discussing Brazilian players who are plying their trade in Europe and famous “jogadores” from the past. Mention the wrong local side and you’ll find yourself being taken the gringo route to your destination, watching the taximeter escalating.

And it’s not just the “taxistas” who love their football. Nearly everyone is a “torçedor” (supporter) of one side or another, as you can see by the number of people wearing replica shirts on the streets. But very few people are “fanaticos” who attend matches on a regular basis. Go to a “super clasico” and the passion and atmosphere is a sight to behold, whole sections of the ground bouncing up and down in unison, chanting their team on to victory. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Television and newspapers are filled with football too. Two of the terrestrial free-to-air channels even broadcast the same game simultaneously such is the interest in the result. Players have microphones shoved in their faces as they walk off for the half-time interval or as they complete their last stretches before coming on as a substitute, such is the media attention. “O Fenômeno” Ronaldo’s recent indiscretions with three transvestites ensured that football dominated the front pages as well as the back even more so than usual.

There can be no doubting the interest in football, so why the poor attendances? A large factor in this has to be the costs of tickets. With prices ranging from 20 reais (US$12) to 150 reais (US$90) and with the minimum salary of 415 reais (US$250) per month, the average man cannot afford to go, or at least not on a regular basis. Also, if you’re a torçedor of one of the bigger sides (Flamengo, Corinthians, São Paulo, Vasco da Gama, Palmeiras etc.), a large number of the games are screened live.

But the same could be said of England, where tickets can cost as much as £71 (US$139) and where “Sky Sports” show up to six live games every weekend. Yet the attendances don’t seem to suffer there. Brazil seems to prefer following from a safe distance away, surrounded by the comforts of a local bar or the sofa.

So although the Brazilians clearly like their football, for true fanaticism England beats Brazil. Just a shame that isn’t true about events on the field too!