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June 18, 2012

European Cup 2012 - Discover The World's Most Popular Sport.


In spite of the conceit expressed by American baseball in calling its championship "World Series" and the hype surrounding American football's "Super Bowl" there are two events held every four years, alternating every two years, which can be more genuinely referred to as World and Super respectively. The Federation Internationale de Football Association's (FIFA) World Cup was last held in 2010 in the Republic of South Africa and the competing teams were from countries in every hemisphere on the planet. While The Union of European Football Associations' (UEFA) European Cup only features the best teams of Europe coming together every four years, the competition is if anything even more exciting than its larger compatriot.

After two years of qualifying games the top sixteen national teams in Europe spend three weeks playing intense matches to decide the championship. Unlike the World Cup where it always seems inevitable one of six teams will walk away with the win, in the European Cup there's more of a chance of one of the long shots, if not winning, then at least making their way through to the latter stages of the tournament. Unheralded countries like Greece and Turkey have surprised more famous sides in recent years, with the Greeks actually winning the cup in 2004. In 2008 things returned to something akin to form as perennial power Spain won the cup, though even that was considered something of a breakthrough as it came after years of the country's team failing to live up to expectations.

With Spain continuing its winning ways by taking home the 2010 World Cup they have to be considered one of the favourites in Euro2012. However, such is the fickle finger of fate they come into the tourney having lost their leading scorer and most experienced defender to injuries. In their first game against Italy, a one all draw, while they played their usual excellent ball control game they seemed to be lacking the ability to finish their passes off with quality shots on goal and showed some alarming weaknesses in their ability to defend against quick counter attacks by the Italians. Only the Italians inability to score on their chances prevented Spain from losing their opening match. However they looked much more impressive in their 4 - 0 result over, an admittedly outclassed, Republic of Ireland.

With one game remaining in the group stage for each team (The teams are divided into four groups of four with the top two teams in each advancing to the quarter finals after a round robin of three games. Each team is awarded three points for a win and one point for a tie) Spain still has to be considered one of the favourites, but they don't seem quite the sure thing to win as they did two years ago in South Africa. Still they are in better shape than other teams one normally thinks of as always in the running, and along with Italy should advance out of Group with no trouble. In Group B the Dutch are almost eliminated having lost their first two games. Portugal lost to Germany in their first game but redeemed themselves by defeating Denmark in their second and only need to beat the Dutch to advance. Denmark can still advance if Portugal loses and they either draw or defeat Germany. If they both lose it will come down to who has the best goal differential among the three as they will all end up with identical records.

While England and France are currently tied for first in Group D at four points co-host Ukraine are only one point behind. France showed flashes of their familiar brilliance in defeating the Ukraine 2 -0, but England was fortunate to defeat a weak Swedish side, and face the real risk of going home. Although the Brits only need a tie to advance, the Ukraine might be more than they can handle. Playing in front of a home audience with a chance of advancing out of the group stage for the first time since the end of Soviet Union, their talent will be augmented by a drive to succeed that will make them tough to beat. Neither side had an answer to France's ball possession but the Ukraine had a much easier time of it beating Sweden than the British and look to be the more dynamic side. As long as France doesn't do anything stupid they should have no problems defeating Sweden in their final match and winning the group.

Group A, made up of Russia, Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic, were considered the weak sister before start of play, in spite of Greece winning in 2004, being teams who have never been considered real powers in international soccer. Russia has had good teams in the past and it was assumed they would advance to the quarter finals with the other three fighting it out for the final spot. After the first two games everything looked like it was going according to prediction, and co-host Poland only had to beat the Czech Republic to advance. Well the beauty of this tournament is that strange and wondrous things can happen. Thanks to Russia's inability to take advantage of their numerous scoring chances Greece stunned them 1 - 0 in their final match to advance, giving them the dubious honour of facing the winner of Group B, most likely Germany. The Czech Republic followed closer to form by beating the Poles 1 - 0 and winning the group, and they will face the second place finisher in Group B - either Portugal or Denmark. (Holland are still alive mathematically but it would take a miracle for them to advance)

Unlike the group phase where games can end in ties, from the quarter finals on there has to be a winner. While that's great and usually makes for some exciting soccer, it also raises the ugly spectre of penalty kicks. If after regulation time and two overtime periods the match remains tied the game is decided by each team selecting five players and the side which scores the most by kicking the ball from the penalty spot, eighteen yards out from goal, wins. I've always found this to be a far too arbitrary way to end a game. However, even worse, is the fact there have been teams who have deliberately played the entire game with the goal of pushing it to penalty kicks. If you thought defensive hockey was bad, there is nothing quite as ugly as a soccer team who only plays defence. Let's hope nobody resorts to this tactic in the days to come.

While I'd question anybody who says the best players and teams in the world come from Europe (have they never heard of Lionel Messi or countries called Argentina, Brazil, Cameroon, Japan, all who have made their presence known internationally and play an exciting brand of soccer that can stand up to anything the Europeans can produce) with fewer weak teams qualifying than one sees in the World Cup nothing can be taken for granted. I'm sure the Greeks defeating Russia isn't the last upset will see this tournament. However, that being said, judging by play during the Group Stages, it still looks like the tournament is going to come down to one of the traditional four European powers, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. I don't think I'm going out on too much of a limb by saying of the four Spain is still the side to beat. They not only can control the ball with their pin point passing, as they showed against Northern Ireland, they can also bury their scoring opportunities.

At its best soccer has a rhythm all of its own. There's an ebb and a flow as the action moves up and down the field and as a side gradually builds an opportunity for a chance to score. Unlike the sports North Americans are used to with the instant gratification of the long pass for the touchdown or the home run shot that clears the bases, a goal in soccer can take ten minutes to develop. Watching teams like Spain or Italy work the ball into a position for taking a shot is to watch artistry in motion. I find it amazing that people who will gladly watch golf or curling on television can call soccer boring. As we come down to the final games in the group stage and move on into the sudden death playoffs in Euro 2012 you'll have the chance to see for yourself why outside of North America soccer is still the world's most popular sport.

(Article first published as Euro Cup 2012: Discover the World's Most Popular Sport on Blogcritics)

June 30, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Countdown To Final

For some reason I only ever seem to watch the World Cup every eight years. I doubt I could have told you before this year's started who had won in 2006 (Italy), while I watched almost the whole of the 2002 tournament. Of course that year I was pretty much a captive audience as I was in a hospital bed for the majority of the tournament. I went into hospital for surgery during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and was in until almost the final game of the World Cup. Four to five weeks of being in a hospital bed has you searching pretty desperately for distraction, and so that year the World Cup was a welcome diversion.

The years when I lived in Toronto, Ontario - up until 1990 - you couldn't help noticing when the World Cup was being played. As one of the most ethnically diverse city's in the world there's a fair chance that every country participating in the tournament will be represented by a segment of its population. It was especially difficult to ignore when Italy, Portugal, Brazil or Greece, are involved as they each have both large communities and specific neighbourhoods where their populations are concentrated most heavily. (In years when Portugal have been eliminated they naturally switch to supporting Portuguese speaking Brazil - the chance of a Portugal versus Brazil final this year will make for some interesting times down in Little Portugal if it becomes a reality). This year I have a feeling that World Cup fever in Toronto has been somewhat restrained up to now with the downtown core being turned into a police state for the G20/G8 get together. There's something about running battles between protesters and police, burning cars, barricades, and the constant din of helicopters patrolling the skies that tends to cut down on the festive mood.

The attraction for me this year has been the locale; for the first time ever the tournament is being held in Africa - specifically South Africa. That was enough to have me start tuning in for the group stages via the live stream offered by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). Usually these early rounds are fairly boring as the teams are all trying to find their feet so to speak, and while there have been some startling results in opening games in the past, by the time the group stage ends the old order usually reasserts itself with the same old names leading the way into the round of sixteen. While there was still some truly remarkably boring football played, (The BBC commentators the CBC uses were constantly bemoaning a lack of goals in the early games) by the time the dust had settled, while some familiar names remained, it was obvious the old order was changing.

France, who only qualified for the tournament through a disputed goal, and reigning champion Italy failed to advance; England only managed to score two goals in three games and barely qualified; and Spain, favoured to win it all this year, lost their opening game to Switzerland and only scrapped through by the skin of their teeth. While Europe was treading water trying to stay afloat, South America's representatives had no such problems. Of the six teams five advanced, with only Honduras falling short. While Brazil is always expected to compete, in their usual Eurocentric fashion the rest of the contingent were given short shrift by the so called experts.
Argentina were discounted because not only did they barely qualify everybody questioned the sanity of their manager, the mercurial Diego Maradona. As for the rest, well what type of threat could countries like Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay pose to the traditional powers? Well, of the five advancing only Chile failed to win their group. Maradona's Argentineans are proving to be the most enjoyable team to watch in the tournament due to his decision have them play an attacking style which saw them win all of their group games and then demolish Mexico with ease in the round of sixteen. (Of course it doesn't hurt that their attack is centred around Lionel Messi easily the most exciting player in the world right now.) Uruguay has also moved on to the quarter finals, overcoming a tough South Korean team in the pouring rain to win two to one in their round of sixteen match.

Unfortunately for Brazil and Chile one of them won't be continuing on after today (Monday June 28th/10) as they face off against each other. While Brazil hasn't looked like anything special yet, they haven't really been forced to exert themselves either as they easily handled an Ivory Coast team depleted by injuries, an over matched North Korean side, and played Portugal to a zero - zero draw in a meaningless game. One has the feeling they'll be able to elevate their game to whatever level is required of them in order to continue advancing for quite a while yet. Chile, while game, simply don't have the talent to compete with their northern neighbour and barring a miracle will find themselves going home after today. As for the game between Paraguay and Japan to be played on Tuesday (June 29th/10) that one is hard to call. In the two games I've seen involving the Japanese they not only have been able to attack well, unlike other teams they've also been able to deliver on free kicks during this tournament, scoring twice from a set piece during their three to one victory over Denmark to wrap up the group stage. Paraguay had two draws and a win to head up what turned out to be one of the weaker groups, and although I never saw them play, I have a feeling they might not be up the challenge posed by Japan and will be the third South American team heading home.

While I know American supporters were disappointed by their team's loss to Ghana after they had won their group with the thrilling last minute victory over Algeria, I think their expectations might have been falsely elevated by their success in the first three games. They only need look at how easily Germany dominated England in their match yesterday (Sunday June 27th/10) to know how weak their group opposition had been and their match against Ghana was a return to reality. Faced with a world class goal keeper in Richard Kingson and strikers able to take advantage of the few opportunities offered them, their own inability to finish around the goal finally caught up to them. Although when it comes to creating false expectations nobody quite matches up to the English. Why anyone could have considered them a threat to challenge for the World Cup this year was beyond me. They can yell about referee error until they are blue in the face, but they were still outplayed and outclassed at every turn against Germany. Anyway, every team playing has to live with the fact that the refereeing in international football matches is archaic and flawed, and its how a team responds to those setbacks which shows its mettle.

While some European sides have been a source of embarrassment and disappointment for their fans there are still five remaining. Germany has a long history of success at the World Cup, and although critics were prepared to write off this year's side because of injuries and inexperience, they have proven to be one of the more exciting sides to watch. Aside from their let down against Serbia where they obviously went in over confident after their easy four - nothing result against Australia, they have played with confidence and ability. Holland, Portugal, and Spain, have all at one time or another deservedly earned the title of the best teams to have never won anything. Spain finally broke through to win the European Cup in 2008, but aside from that, despite exceptionally talented sides for years, none have ever won any title of significance. With Spain and Portugal facing off tomorrow (Tuesday June 29th/10) one of them will keep the that tradition alive - and quite frankly its a toss up depending on which side is able to field players instead of prima donnas. However, I'll go with Spain based on their gritty win over Chile.

Holland has managed to sneak under everybody's radar this tournament, or at least not attract the publicity that other less deserving sides have managed, and have quietly gone about winning every one of their group matches in a solid if unspectacular manner. In a couple hours they'll be going up against one of the surprises of the tournament, Slovakia, who advanced after their three - two upset of Italy. While Slovakia might be a sentimental favourite for some, they stand no chance against the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the winner of this game, their next opponent will be the winner of the Brazil - Chile match-up and even Holland will be hard pressed to rise to that occasion. Ironically the European team with the best chance of advancing past the quarter finals will be the winner of Spain versus Portugal as they will take on either Paraguay or Japan, as Germany already has a date with Maradona's Argentineans.

In fact there's a very real possibility that the semi-final match-ups will see three South American sides and one European side vying for a berth in the finals, with either Spain or Portugal (my bet being Spain) trying to get by Argentina and Uruguay duelling Brazil for the other spot. No matter how much I'd love to see an African side move all the way through to the finals the first time the games are held on their home continent, even if Ghana were to overcome Uruguay by some miracle, Brazil would just be too much for them. With Argentina improving with every game, and Lionel Messi continuing to dominate the mid-field creating opportunities for his team mates to score nearly every time he brings the ball near an opponent's goal, neither the surprising Germans nor a desperate Spanish side will do much to slow down their march to the final. So come July 11th/10 expect to see the blue and white of Argentina take the field against the gold and blue of Brazil in the final- and hopefully one of the best football games played this decade. As long as Maradona doesn't decide to send himself on as a substitute, when the dust finally settles we should be seeing the boys from Patagonia raising the cup at the end of the day.

(Article first published as World Cup 2010: Rooting For An All-South American Final on Blogcritics.)

June 25, 2010

Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup

As the group stage of The Word Cup winds down the teams who are qualified to continue on to the elimination stage have been all but decided. While it would have been glorious if the home side of South Africa could have advanced, or even more than one team from the host continent (at this writing barring a miracle only Ghana will advance), the fact they were in a position to host the games at all is something to be celebrated. All credit for making the decision to award them the hosting duties has to be given to the governing body of international football - Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) - when they could have easily made a safe decision and kept them in Europe or given a South American country a turn. In the weeks and months leading up the match newspapers have been filled with stories expressing concerns about violence in South Africa, lack of proper facilities, transportation, and a raft of other problems besetting the host nation.

It was almost impossible to find anyone willing to write something positive about the fact the games were being held here. Even South African's football fans came in for criticism because of their use of the "horrible" vuvuzela, a plastic replica of a traditional tribal horn, that makes an ear splitting din. Commentators have sniffed that they won't be able to hear themselves speak, (as if anything most sports commentators have to say is of any real value) or even worse they drown out the traditional sound of fans singing at matches. As that's only really a tradition in England and some of the European countries, that's not really much of a loss, especially when you consider some of the drivel sung by team supporters in the United Kingdom. Quite frankly fans blowing trumpets that make an ear splitting noise are a minor inconvenience when compared to the nightmares that British team supporters used to cause when they made their annual raiding trips to the continent. It's amazing how all the British tabloid press who have been raising dire warnings about South Africa have forgotten how fans from the United Kingdom were banned from travelling abroad after their rioting resulted in thirty-nine people dying in Belgium in 1985.

Yet here we are, nearly half way through the games, and even with half the private security people having gone on strike and a few technical problems, you'll hardly hear a word of complaint being voiced by anyone now they are under way. The only comments I've heard from commentators during the games I've watched is how wonderful the people of South Africa have been and how the whole nation seems to have thrown itself into trying to make them successful. I watched the first and last games the host nation played - their one all draw with Mexico and their two to one victory over France - and heard about how they would become the first host nation to fail to advance out of qualifying in ages. Yet, while I was disappointed for the players and their fans (while revelling in seeing the French players receive the humiliation they so richly deserved) I couldn't help thinking how wonderful to see the team playing in the World Cup and South Africa hosting it, no matter what the result.

Twenty years ago, in June of 1990, only four months after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela made one of his first international visits,to Canada. He came for two reasons, one was to thank the people of the country and our government for supporting the struggle against apartheid by boycotting everything to do with the white minority rule regime, and secondly to urge our government to not relax the economic sanctions prohibiting Canadians from doing business with South Africa. Even though he had been freed from jail, the white majority government continued to rule and the apartheid laws were still in force so victory was still far from assured at that time. It wasn't until Mandela was elected president in 1994 that you could really believe in the idea of a new South Africa.

If you're wondering why Mandela would visit a relatively internationally insignificant country like Canada on what was his first trip abroad, it was because our government at the time was one of the strongest advocates for sanctions in the so called developed world. I wasn't a supporter of Brian Mulroney, and in fact disagreed with almost everything he and his Progressive Conservative Party of Canada stood for. However I will always admire the way in which he played a leading role in fighting for South African freedom. As it also involved publicly disagreeing with two of his biggest allies internationally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom and President Ronald Regan of the United States, neither of whom would support sanctions against South Africa, his actions were even more impressive.

While our government played a large role in the latter stages of the fight against apartheid, Mandela also appreciated the fact that Canadians as individuals had been active for much longer. While it was important for him to address our politicians, and I believe he became the first non-leader of a country to address our houses of parliament officially, he also made sure to address people directly. Whether high school students as the link above describes or a public rally in Toronto Ontario, he thanked them for their help. My mother was one of those who went to see him speak when he was in Toronto, and she came away feeling like she had been part of history. You see, ever since I was aware enough to understand I knew she would never shop at certain stores because they wouldn't list where the fruit and vegetables they sold were grown. So at least from the late 1960's until the 1990's she never purchased anything grown or manufactured in South Africa, or had dealings with any company doing business with that country. Who could blame her for not feeling as if she might have had a little to do with helping ensure Mandela was able to stand there that day.

It has not been an easy sixteen years for South Africa and Nelson Mandela since his election in 1994. For close to a hundred years the majority of the nation's population had been living under the totalitarian rule of a small hand full of invaders because of the colour of their skin. They had been forced to live in poverty and any attempt at protest was met with ruthless violence. School children were shot down in the street in 1976 in Soweto protesting a law forcing them to be taught in Afrikaner, the language of the rulers, and now they had to find a way to live peacefully with the people responsible for those crimes.

While majority rule has brought about changes in the way in which people are treated, there is no way to eradicate all the damage that was wrought during the previous decades. Who knows how many generations it will take until the societal imbalances between the races is changed? Poverty and lack of education among the majority population can not be overcome instantly. Any dreams of instant prosperity that people might have harboured with democracy were quickly shattered as the reality of the task facing them became clear. Yet in spite of all the obstacles facing them this World Cup has shown the world that South Africa still believes in itself and continues to move forward. We can only hope that the people and her leaders can draw upon the success of the event to see for themselves just how far they have come in such a short time.

As time ran out on South Africa's final match of this World Cup, and the players and the fans celebrated their bittersweet victory over France, I was moved in a way that I didn't think possible by a sporting event as I thought back over the history leading up to this moment. It would have taken a minor miracle for them to be able to advance to the next stage of play, and it wasn't to be. Yet no matter what, the World Cup has to be considered a victory for South Africa and its people and one can't help but want to wish them well and hope for their continued success.

(Article first published as Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup on Blogcritics.)

June 24, 2008

Euro2008: And Now There Are Four

And now there are four. Two weeks ago sixteen teams began the final stages of the Euro2008 Football championships after working there way through the qualifying stages. Two weeks of some very exciting and surprising football have reduced the field to Germany taking on Turkey and Spain taking on Russia to determine who will meet in the championship game on June 29th 2008. The way the tournament has been going to this point, I doubt anyone can offer an iron clad guarantee on who will advance to that final game in Vienna Austria, let alone leave the pitch as champion.

Of the four teams only Spain has followed the path predicted for it before the tournament. They handily defeated Russia, Sweden, and Greece in the preliminary round before being forced to engage in a penalty kick shoot out to advance past the Italians in the quarter finals. While Spain might not have looked as impressive in their match against the Italians as they did say against the Russians in the first round, the psychological impact of beating their old adversary, the first time in competition since the 1920's, can't be underestimated.

In the modern era Spain has been the perennial underachiever, never living up to their pre-tournament hype and leaving their fans wondering what might have been. More often than not the team that has been responsible for breaking Spanish hearts have been the Italians. As host country for the World Cup in 1982 they were ahead of the Italians 2 - 0 before falling 3 -2 in their quarter final match. That Italy stunned highly favoured Brazilian and German sides as well as the Spaniards on their way to their third World Cup victory, was probably of little consolation to the team or its fans.

So now they have finally broken the curse of the Azurri and will be facing the Russian team that they defeated 4 -1 in the opening game of this tournament. They won't be overconfident after their narrow win over Italy, but they will have the confidence that comes with winning the games they are supposed to win. Although Italy stifled their speedy forwards and quick counter attacks with a smothering defence, they should find more room on the pitch for manoeuvring against an equally fast paced Russian team that concentrates on offence as much as the Spanish do.

This is not the same Russian side that Spain beat so easily two weeks ago though, as they bounced back from their opening defeat to advance out of the round robin, and then ran a highly favoured Dutch team into the ground 3 - 1 in their quarter final match. Even though the game wasn't decided until the second overtime period, the Russian's constant attack mode clearly left the Dutch exhausted and only the excellence of their goal keeper kept the score from mounting higher and allowed the game to extend into extra time.

While one player does not a team make, the return of their star Andrei Arshavin, after missing the first two games as a result of a suspension carried over from the qualifying round, has made Russia a far more dangerous squad then they were when Spain defeated them. He was a constant threat in the game against the Dutch, made a beautiful crossing pass to set up the winning goal, and scored the insurance goal that sealed Holland's fate three minutes from the end of extra time.

After the Netherlands had beaten both Italy, 3 - 0, and France, 4 -1, handily in the opening round, they rested eight starters for their final game against Romania and still won easily by a score of 2 - 0. Everyone considered them to the team to beat coming out of qualifying; they were poised, professional and elegant, and had looked positively unbeatable in destroying their opposition. Yet, against the Russian squad they looked old and tired as the young legs of Russia ran them into the ground. Indicative of their problems were how many penalties they took for late tackles or tackling from behind as they were continually left in Russian dust.

If Russia's defeat of the Netherlands to gain a place in the final four is a surprise, Turkey's presence in the other semi-final against Germany is astonishing. After losing their opening match 2 - 0 to Portugal, they then proceeded to break Swiss and Czech hearts by staging remarkable last minute come from behind wins of 2 - 1 and 3 - 2 respectively. If scoring the tying and winning goals in injury time against the Czechs to decide who advanced to the quarter finals wasn't remarkable enough, the goal they scored against Croatia that sent their quarter final match to penalty kicks came just before the referee's whistle blew to end extra time.

What makes Turkey's run even more remarkable is the number of starting players they are missing due to injury or suspension. Now it seems like these absences are finally going to catch up to them. Aside from missing their starting goalie due to a two game suspension after committing a nasty, and unnecessary foul, in their match against the Czech Republic, seven other starters will be absent from the line up when the whistle blows to start their match against Germany. It really seems impossible for the German side to lose.

Yet Germany hasn't exactly lived up to their billing as one of the pre-tournament favourites having lost to Croatia in the opening round and escaping with a fortunate 1 - 0 victory over Austria. They looked very impressive defeating Poland in their opening game, but if Austria had had anyone capable of putting the ball in the net, Germany may not have even made it out of the first round. However, in their quarter final match-up with Portugal they played a beautiful, inspired game against one of the pre tournament favourites to win 3 - 2.

So the question is, which version of the German team will show up to play Turkey? On paper they shouldn't have a problem with the horribly depleted Turkish side, but they should have been able to beat Croatia and handle Austria with ease. Yet, it's almost impossible to believe that the squad that handled Portugal so easily will have any problems with Turkey, and that Germany won't be one of the two teams playing in Vienna on the 29th of June. However, if there's one squad that is playing the underdog role beautifully, and who you can't help cheering for, it's Turkey.

If I'm being honest though, I haven't seen anything that the Turkish side has done that make it look like they will be able to get past a German side with so much potential. In fact none of the remaining teams look to have the all round team that the Germans have. While Russia will most likely get past Spain in their semi-final, Germany has to be the favourite to win the 2008 European Championship.

However, if there is one thing that Euro2008 has proven, it's that no result is assured until the referee blows the whistle for the final time and anything still can happen between now and the end of the match on Sunday June 29th.

June 9, 2008

European Cup 2008: Football At It's Best

Every four years sixteen of Europe's top national football (soccer) sides compete in the European Cup. Held exactly half way between World Cups, the European Cup, is in some ways even more intense and passionate than its bigger cousin. Rivalries between nations in Europe, on and off the football pitch, extend back hundreds of years. Border skirmishes and other ancient grudges are now played out by twenty-two men in front of screaming thousands, instead of in the mud and across no-man's land.

As is the case in all major international competitions the country hosting the event automatically qualifies while the rest of the spots are decided in a series of run-off games. Under normal circumstances that would leave fifteen spots up for grabs, but this year's event is being jointly hosted by Switzerland and Austria, reducing the number of spots available. Unlike EuroCup/04 which was hosted by Portugal whose team would have qualified anyway, neither of this year's hosts were likely to have made it into the competition. I'm sure this has led to quite a bit of resentment on the part of teams like England, a perennial power, who failed to qualify.

Of course the security forces of Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, who are lending men and expertise to its smaller neighbours, are probably relieved that they won't have to worry about the notorious English fans and their potential for violence. They've enough to worry about organizing security in two countries and multiple venues, where total attendance is expected to be in the millions, without wondering whether or not inebriated Englishmen will decide to go on a rampage.

Even without the English in attendance things are tense enough as it is with some of the previously mentioned nationalist grudges starting to simmer over already. Hostilities broke out between Polish and German fans in the run-up to Sunday's, June 8th, match between the two countries resulting in the arrest of seven German men. Hopefully once the early elimination rounds are over, when half the teams have gone home and the crowds thinned out some, the chances of this sort of thing happening will be reduced.

The sixteen teams have been divided up into four groups by random draw and play one game each against the teams in their section. The top two finishers in each group advance to the next round where the team with the most points accumulated in the first round plays off against the team with the fewest. A team receives three points for a win and a point for a tie in the preliminary round. From then on the games are sudden death, and decided by penalty kick shoot-outs if tied at the end of regulation and two, twenty minute, overtime periods.

In a shoot-out each team initially starts with five players, selected from those who are currently playing, and take turns trying to score on the goalie from the penalty kick mark. The team that scores the most goals out of five wins the game. If the teams are still tied at the end of the first five penalty kicks they proceed on to sudden death penalty kicks, where the first side to gain the advantage wins. If the first side scores, the second is given an opportunity to tie, but if they fail, the game is over.

With the goalie not allowed to leave his goal line, or move, until the shooter does, the advantage would appear to reside with the kicker. After all he has a huge amount of net to shoot at, and the goalie can only guess where he thinks the ball will be shot. Yet many a star laden team has gone down to defeat at the hands of an underdog because a game has gone to penalty kicks and their sure-footed scorers aren't able to find the net.

In the last EuroCup, underdog Greece won the championship by playing a tight defensive game and winning games on penalty kicks when their more highly rated opponents succumbed to the pressure of the situation. Greece is back again this year and is once again going to be considered fortunate to make it out of the round robin segment of the tournament - of course that's what everybody predicted four years ago when they won it all in the final over host country Portugal.

As is the case with every international football event, there are certain teams which are always considered a threat to win, and this European Cup is no exception. Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands almost always seem to field a team that can threaten to go all the way. This year the advantage is clearly Germany's as through the luck of the draw the other three have all ended up in the same preliminary group which means one of them are going home early. Even without that bit of good luck (if you're a German supporter) the Germans have to be considered favoured as their star players are all in top health and at the peak of their careers. Their only weakness lies in goal, as their keeper has a history of giving up weak goals.

Still, with Italy losing her captain, Fabio Cannavaro to injury in their first practice, and both the French and Dutch sides having star players just back from injury, even without the fortuitous draw, the real threat to the first major German international championship since the 1996 Euros could come from another source. Portugal and Spain are Europe's most renowned under achievers. They always seem to be on the cusp of greatness, but never manage to win in the end.

The loss to Greece on their home turf must have devastating to the Portuguese, but it might give them the desperation required to finally win it all. Yesterday's 2 - 0 victory over a tough Turkish side indicated that they aren't about to go quietly, and any team that can call upon Cristiano Ronaldo - arguably the best player in the world right now - can't be discounted. He scored a remarkable forty-two goals this year for Manchester United and is the front runner for the Federation International Football Association's (FIFA) world player of the year trophy.

The great thing about the EuroCup is that you can't count anybody out, except maybe the two host teams this year. Russia, Croatia, Romania, Turkey, The Czech Republic, and Sweden, can always be counted on to field solid teams with enough talent to pull off an upset. All it takes is a couple of missed opportunities - a goal post here and a missed net there - and a favourite can find themselves sitting on the sidelines wondering what the hell happened. Germany only needs to look at its record of no victories, three draws, and three defeats in the last two EuroCups to be reminded of how dangerous a tournament this can be.

While the idea of a tournament exclusive to Europeans is somewhat chauvinistic, excluding as it does teams from South America and Africa where the game is every bit as popular as it is in Europe, there is no denying that the European Cup makes for nearly four weeks of great football action. Do yourself a favour and check out a match or two, but be careful, you might just find yourself getting addicted. In Canada the games are being broadcast on TSN (The Sports Network) and Sportsnet with each station's web site broadcasting taped highlights of all the games.

November 22, 2006

Yesterday's Idols - Today's Fantansy

I was recently asked who my idol was when I was a kid. What I thought interesting about the question was that it was assumed, correctly as it happens, that I had an idol when I was a kid. It's just one of those things that goes with the territory of growing up, having a person we look up to for some reason or another.

Like a lot of young boys my idol when I was a kid was sports figure. But unlike so many other kids who picked the real popular players of the day, my favourite's best days were long behind him. Henri (don't pronounce the H and make en sound like on and you'll have a good idea how to say his name) Richard's glory days had been in the fifties with his brother Maurice "The Rocket" Richard and the sixties with Jean Beliveau.

By the time I found out that a player on my favourite team had a last name the same as my first name his career was beginning to draw to a close. He did score the game tying and game winning goals in the 1971 Stanley Cup championship against Tony Esposito and the Chicago Blackhawks. But the real story that year was Montreal's rookie goalie Ken Dryden. He'd only played six games in the regular season, before coming in and starting every playoff game and stoning the opposition cold.

Four years later, Henri retired after winning his eleventh Stanley Cup, and his first as Captain of the Montreal Canadians. He had been a small elusive player who could skate circles around the bigger players looking to make him part of the boards. He never had the most powerful shot in the world, but it seemed to be able to find the back of the net anyway. Maybe not with the regularity of his more illustrious brother, but his goals always seemed to be important.
Henri & Maurice Richard.jpg
They were the goals that would put the team back into the game when it seemed the game was lost, or the goal that broke the spirit of the other team in a tight playoff series. His goals always seemed to carry a little of the team's past glory with them, and you could almost see the other team wilt when he scored, as if all of a sudden a Canadians' win was now inevitable.

As a child it was easy to have a sports figure as an idol, especially back in the more innocent days of the late sixties and early seventies prior to endorsement deals, steroids, and all the other disillusionments that have come with the passing of the years. Of course we also didn't know the intimate details of our heroes' lives then as we do now.

I can still look back on Henri Richard's career with the rose tinted glasses of the young kid who thought he was great because I never found out whether or not he drank heavily, beat his wife, or slept around while on the road. There was usually one or two reporters who followed the same team each year from their home town newspaper and they knew if they ever said anything about stuff they weren't supposed to they'd never report on another game again.

Anyway they were just as much a member of the team as the coaching staff and the management. Sharing the train rides and sitting up with the players, drinking and playing cards as they travelled between games. They had as much to lose as the players did by talking; it was a pretty exclusive club in those days and nobody wanted to lose their membership.

As a kid a sports hero made sense, they did something you would like to do, and they did it really well. Your world wasn't cluttered with the things that adults filled theirs with. All that mattered was whether your hero scored on Saturday nights and his team won. It could mean the world in terms of bragging rights at school on Monday, but by Wednesday focus would have shifted onto next Saturday's game.

Henri Richard retired when I was twelve, on the cusp of adulthood, and I don't think that I've had a person who I'd call an idol since. At least not in the same uncomplicated way that he was to my young self. The Montreal Canadians of the later 1970's are considered one of the benchmark teams of the NHL that others are compared too.

Like the New York Islander and Edmonton Oiler teams that followed, they were the class of the league. Each of those three great teams had players on them worthy of idolization, but not one of them seemed able to strike that chord with me. Wayne Gretzkey, Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, and Mark Messier were all gifted individuals whose talent could and did elevate hockey to artistry on occasion but it didn't seem to matter.

It wasn't that hockey had lost its attraction, that would come later; in fact it was watching people like Gretzkey that kept my interest alive for as long as it lasted. Instead it was the fact that my own horizons had expanded. I could see the potential for other people, professions, and skills to be worthy of emulation and respect.

The thing is though it's a lot harder to idolize your doctor or plumber for their skills than it was the athletes who you followed as a kid. There is nothing truly spectacular about what either of them do, no moments when they will show off some particularly incredible move that will leave you with your heart in your mouth and awestruck.

But you also know that you have more practical use in your life for a plumber or a doctor than a professional athlete, pop musician, or movie star and you know which one you can live without. An idol is someone you fantasize about being, not somebody you actually become.

Whether scoring the game-winning goal in the championship game, or wining an acting award, or singing on stage in front of a hundred thousand people, you can look at them and say what if. As a child you can even believe in it for a while, and even as an adult you can hold on to a dream for a time. If you're lucky and talented, or sometimes just lucky, you might even become something akin to those you idolize.

As you grow older though, you realize the chances of that happening are remote, and the fantasy of becoming your idol fades. Some people continue to live vicariously through the lives of celebrities using their experiences to augment their own, but they have mostly stopped trying to be them.

As a child we pick out an idol for any number of reasons, but mainly for the purpose of allowing us to create a fantasy involving dreams of fame and glory. As we age we realize that those dreams are usually beyond our reach, and that is the beginning of the end for our need of idols. There are plenty of people who I respect and admire, but I don't dream of becoming them anymore.

July 8, 2006

The World Cup Of Soccer: The Heart Matters

I have a hard time getting interested in professional sports anymore. I don't know whether it's because of the hypocrisy of the owners and league officials who have instilled the win at all cost attitude in their players, and then are the first ones to crucify the guy caught for using steroids, or the cynicism of the players who mouth platitudes about the fans being important, but will ditch his former team for some extra money.

More than likely it's probably a combination of both. It doesn't matter which league or which sport, all the big ones seem the same. To make matters worse the American college system shows symptoms of the same sort of illness; young men and women being encouraged to sacrifice their bodies at a young age with no thought of what's going to happen to them in the future.

I don't mind that it's run like a business, that makes sense to a degree, but due to the astronomical amounts of money required to run a professional sports team a lot of them end up being the personal playthings of wealthy men who don't necessarily have the interests of the fan base at heart. Even worse, as is the case with the Toronto Raptors and The Toronto Maple Leafs, is having ownership to which the bottom line is more important than winning.

They expect their players to play at almost any cost, but aren't willing to make the same commitment where it matters most for ownership. What should a fan that fills the seats for game after game feel if he knows that the hundreds of dollars he shelled out for tickets are being considered the return on an investment for a pension fund instead of a means to upgrade the team in the hopes of winning a championship?

As a typical Canadian boy I played hockey as a kid, and dearly loved the game. I used to live and die with the Montreal Canadians dating back to the days when the winner of the established Eastern division would play the helpless patsy from the West for the Stanley Cup. By the time the 1970's were wearing down and the Canadians were winning their fourth cup in a row before handing the reigns over to the New York Islanders, it had become more a reflex to cheer for them than out of any real interest.

For some reason though, there were still two sporting events at the time that managed to hold my interest and could keep me glued to a television screen: The Winter Olympics and The World Cup of Soccer. But in recent years even the Winter Olympics have begun to lose their appeal as they have become tainted with the same stains of corruption as the Summer games.

I remember reading a George Orwell piece where he argued against the idea of having international sporting events. He said they only served to exasperate any existing nationalist tendencies on the part of the fans, instead of creating the intended goodwill between nations. But in truth that's what lends the World Cup of Soccer so much of its interest to an outsider like myself; the passion that the supporters have for their teams.

Of course sometimes Mr Orwell's fears come true as there have been some horrific riots in the past during international soccer games. Examples of that type of silliness came to foreground this year when downtown Stuttgart became something of a war zone.

But it's that same passion that first got me hooked on the World Cup back in 1982, when the Italians won. I don't think Toronto had ever seen anything quite like it before; tens of thousands of people pouring into the streets and celebrating. With each victory the celebration grew louder and more exuberant until their joy was so infectious that people who had never watched a soccer match in their life were sitting in front of their television screen, desperately trying to figure out what was going on, while cheering for Italy.

Ever since then I was hooked, I have even started following the results of the qualifying matches two years ahead of the Cup. That's the time when every country still believes they have the opportunity to be one of the 32 sides that will qualify to compete for the right to say they won the World Cup.

Maybe that is part of the appeal of this event as well; it is genuinely a World Cup with countries from all around the world competing. Soccer does not require any special expensive equipment, just a ball, shin pads and shoes, so even the poorest of countries has the chance to field a reasonably competitive team.

Look at this year for example where teams from Togo, The Ivory Coast, and Trinidad and Tobago all made it to the round robin. Although there was the occasional blow out most sides offered quality competition for their opponents. In fact African teams have been responsible for some of the bigger upsets in recent history. One has to only look back to the last World Cup where Senegal beat France ensuring they wouldn't be repeat winners, let alone make it out of their own group.

It seems like everybody loves an underdog, except of course if your side has to be playing them, and will cheer them on hopping against hope for a victory. All of us were able to share in the Senegalese joy of defeating their former colonial masters.

Sure the game is beset by problems and scandals; allegations of throwing matches have almost destroyed the Italian league and the tendency of players to "dive" to try and attract penalties at this World Cup have made the games a bit of a joke on occasion. But in spite of those concerns, and in fact because of the former, there is still all the magic I've always associated with a World Cup.

Can Italy rise above the troubles in its home league and win a fourth World Cup? So far they have only allowed one goal to be scored into their own net, and that was one they scored on themselves. In the win against Germany they struck for two very late goals, but showed skill all game, and prevented what had been one of the highest scoring sides of the tournament from scoring.

France was only able to squeak by Portugal on a first half penalty and Portugal's inability to finish off plays. The French were badly outplayed, but still managed to hang on for the victory. Everybody is making the Italians favourites to win the cup now, but underestimating the French squad has already cost Brazil and Portugal their chance at a championship.

This is pretty much the same team that won the World Cup eight years ago, just a little older, and with a lot to prove. They don't want to be remembered as the team that won one year and went out in the first round the next. To sandwich the shame of the 2002 Cup debacle between two championships would take a lot of the sting out that year.

But the Azzuri are still the Azzuri and right now they look unbeatable. They've beaten their old nemesis Germany and look like a team that is starting to peak at just the right time. Perhaps I'm just being influenced by sentiment and memories and am only speaking form my heart and not my mind when it comes to my assessment, but that's the World Cup.

It's always been less about intellect and thought and more about emotion. It is one sporting event that still hasn't lost its soul completely and continues to wear its heart on its sleeve.

June 15, 2006

Viva Azzurri: Memories Of World Cup 1982

Soccer has always existed on the periphery of athletic life in Canada. Perhaps a little more noticeable here than in the United States because of our closer relationship with Britain. We had varsity soccer teams in primary and secondary schools more often then we would have baseball teams.

Of course hockey was the sport that almost every kid played as a kid, but we all played enough soccer to learn some of the more arcane rules like off sides and what was supposed to merit a penalty or not. But not even the arrival of the first wave of European immigrants did little too change the priorities of Canadians when it came to sport.

I remember during the seventies there was an attempt made to start a professional soccer league in Canada, but I don't think it survived all that long. International matches were few and far between, and when the Canadian team did play any games in Toronto immigrants from their opposition's country usually outnumbered their fans and the players would complain about never having home field advantage.

Even initial success of the North American Soccer League, which featured Pele as a star attraction, faded after his retirement in 1977. Soccer still had not captured the public's imagination in North America unlike the rest of the world where it reigned supreme.

Even the World Cup failed to make that much of an impression on Canadians for the longest time. Most Canadians used to the fast pace of hockey just couldn't find anything exciting about watching two teams of eleven men wander around a field seemingly kicking a ball about at random. The occasional burst of action would be followed by fifteen minutes of what appeared to be unsurpassed tedium.

Not having been nurtured on it as we had on hockey, or even baseball and football, the whole thing seemed meaningless. If you don't play a sport on a regular basis, or have continual exposure to it, it is much harder to understand and appreciate it without any outside motivation. I'm sure that if Canada had been more competitive internationally, more Canadians would have made the effort to learn about the game.

Like a lot of major metropolitan centres across North America, Toronto Ontario experienced a boom of European immigration in the post World War Two period. As the city was going through a massive building boom, and the subway system was being constructed and expanded. That meant there was a great demand for skilled masons and other labourers who we just didn't have.

This demand was met by thousands of Italian immigrants looking to put their skills to work and the Canadian government's active search for skilled labour to help with our post war boom. By the time 1982 rolled around Toronto had the second largest Italian speaking population of any city in the world outside of Rome.

1982 was the year that soccer came to Toronto and never left again. It was the year that Italy won the World Cup and it might as well have been played in Toronto considering the way the fever that gripped the Italian fans gradually seeped out into the lives of the rest of the city. In the confusion of the first round, the World Cup still managed to stay below the radar of most Torontonians who did not have a connection to a team involved in play.

But once the second round commenced there was no way to avoid getting wrapped up in the excitement. You need to understand a little about how Toronto is laid out to see how it was possible for this to happen easily. Toronto has three Little Italies strategically placed throughout the city. The original downtown location, one slightly to the North where people moved when they had earned enough money to move out of the "old neighbourhood" and another one in the suburbs.

Each neighbourhood has it's own block of cafés, bars and restaurants to cater to the community. Whenever the Azzurri (the Italian national football team) were scheduled to play, these streets were deserted as the bars and cafés were filled to the bursting point. At the games successful conclusion patrons would sweep out into the streets and into their vehicles and begin impromptu parades through Toronto.

Flags were waved and horns were honked as the caravans snaked through all three neighbourhoods spreading the excitement. Formally staid Torontonians were faced with choice of trying to pretend they didn't exist, or give and join the party. They camped in front of their television sets in the middle of the afternoon, something none of them had probably done for a sporting event since a decade earlier when Canada had struggled to beat the Soviet Union in the first match up between pro hockey players and the Communist team.

But now instead of cheering for their heroes to race up the ice, they were desperately trying to figure out what was happening on the screen in front of them. All a lot of them knew was the folk in the sky blue uniforms-hence Azzurri-were the ones they had to hope scored.

The dye in the wool fans had suffered through a preliminary round that almost saw the elimination of their stalwarts, and their chances didn't look much better for the round robin leading up to the final. Their first opponent was the previous cup winning Argentina, and hope was pretty thin on the ground.

At every World Cup one player will indelibly mark himself in the memories of the observers. Either through indomitable courage or goal scoring he will rise above the rest of the field and make the cup irrevocably linked to his name. 1982 was the year of Italian striker Paolo Rossi. Having just barely qualified for the team after serving a two-year suspension for his participation in a betting scandal, his lacklustre performance in the opening round had Italians calling for his replacement.

Even Italy's win 2 – 1 win over Argentina didn't do too much to improve the outlook. Next up was perennial powerhouse Brazil who were everyone's pre tournament favourite to win. They had been playing up to their billing and looked like they should have had an easy time of it with Italy. But it was now time for Paolo Rossi to take centre stage. He scored all three goals in Italy's 3-2 triumph over Brazil which guaranteed the Azzurri a trip to the semi final against Poland.

Thousands of beaming Italians jammed the streets and the first of the impromptu cavalcades that were to be the hallmark of all the ensuing celebrations took to the streets. Overnight people who had only ever memorized the exploits of hockey players had a new hero. Paolo Rossi had been completely unknown to most Canadians one day, and the next his name was on the lips of almost every citizen in Toronto.

Following the stunning upset of Brazil it seemed that Italy winning the World Cup was now a foregone conclusion. When Paolo Rossi scored both of their goals in their semi final victory over Poland he assured himself immortality. Italy's 3 – 1 victory over Germany, with Rossi scoring the opening goal, was almost anti climatic, but still set off a celebration that made the two previous victory parties pale in comparison. Celebrations started before the final whistle and continued on well into the next day.

It was Toronto's, and Canada's, first real exposure to the excitement of what the World Cup of soccer is all about. For the period of a week we got to live the excitement and drama of one of sports true world championships. Our eyes were opened to the appeal of what we knew as soccer and the rest of the world called football.

Watching a team like Brazil build an attack in waves, always moving the ball forward, and players with it, exerting continual pressure until their opponent falters and the build up ends with an attempt on goal. It was like watching the tide come in, ebbing back and than surging even further forward on each occasion until finally they swamp the other teams end and keeper.

Italy was more the cut and thrust of a rapier duel. Quick strikes; feints in one direction and moves to the other; until a man was freed for a shot through on the goal. While the Brazilians worked forward as a team, and required only good finishing around the goal in order to succeed, the Italians were dependant on the mercurial temperament and abilities of their strikers. As their fortunes went so did the Azzurri's.

Which is what made Paolo Rossi the centrepiece of the Italy's triumph. His first games in two years and his struggles to find his feet in the opening round exposed the weakness in the Italian game offensively. But with the return of his scoring touch in the second phase they became unbeatable.

There hasn't been a World Cup since 1982 that has captured the imagination of Torontonians or Canadians since than in the same manner, but that's not what's important. What's important is that football now means something more than three or four attempts to move a pointy ball up a field in ten-yard increments. Our newspapers now assign more than just one reporter to the games, who would re-write wire service copy or watch the games on television. This year the Globe and Mail has sent a team of four of five reporters to Germany to cover all aspects of the game: the results, the stories behind the scenes, and the local colour.

But it's not just our attitude towards the World Cup that's changed; it's our whole attitude towards the game. Parents are discovering what other people around the world have known for ages, it costs very little to outfit your child to play soccer as compared to any other sport. There's also the fact that unlike hockey, football, baseball, and basketball, there are more opportunities for all children to play, as initially all that is required is an ability to run in the right direction. (Okay that's a simplification but you know what I mean)

In fact, horror of horrors, more young people are probably signing up to play soccer in Canada than hockey. To outfit a kid to play hockey these days could cost upwards of $1,000 and than that will all have to be replaced when they grow out of their first and second sets of equipment. As they grow older the equipment has to become more sophisticated to offer the necessary protection, and becomes more expensive.

The soccer parent has to maybe buy their child a new pair of cleats and shin pads every so often as they grow. Their kids are getting plenty of fresh air and exercise and none of the strange pressures to succeed that hockey brings out in people. Presently soccer may not have the popularity in Canada to sustain anything more than a few teams in a professional league, but it's getting there.

As more and more kids grow up learning how to play and the rules become second nature as hockey did with previous generations they will want to be able to watch or even play soccer at a higher level. Canada needs to somehow take advantage of this development to encourage the growth of our national program so that we can compete on the world stage.

I don't know if soccer would have caught on at the same speed in Canada if not for the 1982 success of the Italian national soccer team. But I do know that since that time there has been a steady increase in the interest shown towards soccer by people in Canada who have no affiliations with any teams in Europe.

Canada may not have ever won a World Cup, but for a glorious ten days we felt the emotion and exhilaration that are the positives of European and World soccer. It didn't matter if you were Italian or not, the Azzurri were our team and Paolo Rossi our hero. It was truly our introduction to the glorious world of football.

February 24, 2006

Winter Olympics: Send The Pros Home

Maybe it's a Canadian thing, all that snow and ice, but I've always liked the Winter Olympics better than the Summer variety. Until recently, Canada hasn't done any better in the Winter than in the Summer games, so it can't even be put down to chauvinism.

I suppose part of it is that so many of the sports are ones that are much easier to identify with from a North American mind set. Skiing, and combinations there of, skating, tobogganing, (if you can call strapping yourself to a piece of plastic, lying on your back and going down a sheet of ice feet first tobogganing) and snowboarding are all things that anybody at home can do.

Unlike the sprinters, high jumpers, hurdlers, gymnasts, and pole-vaulters, who compete during the Summer Olympics, I have a much easier time identifying with the people who compete in the Winter games. Of course I'm not going to try ski jumping in my back yard or a triple toe loop on skates, but at least I've strapped on a pair of skis in my life and been skating.

How many of you have ever decided to go for a casual pole vault on the weekend? Or maybe chuck around the discus with some friends? It's far more likely that you've gotten together for a ski weekend at some time in your life than sticking what looks like a cannon ball under your chin, and trying to chuck it sixty or seventy yards.

It's not like the Winter Olympics are any less corrupt or commercial than the Summer games; just look at the whole fiasco that surrounded the Salt Lake City games from the organizing committee to the figure skating judging. Or any time a skier is interviewed in the winner's circle and they automatically flip their skis so the brand is facing the cameras; Nike or Fisher, equipment suppliers are the real winners in all these games no matter what the season.

Drugs and means of cheating are just a prevalent, and perhaps even more so. Blood packing before cross-country skiing races (transfusions of fresh blood that supposedly gives you an advantage somehow) seems to have been a favourite for a long time and virtually undetectable until recently. I wouldn't be surprised by anything anymore when it came to devising new and ingenious ways of cheating by athletes and their coaches to give themselves any extra edge possible.

But, even knowing all that, it still seems that there is something far less tainted about the Winter games. Perhaps it is the sheer insanity of some of the sports. Downhill ski racing may look glamorous to watch, but skiing down the side of a mountain at speeds up to 100mph and over is a really good way to get yourself killed I've always thought.

There has been many a time I've tobogganed down a steep hill, that's covered in ice, but I've never done it lying on my back, steering by pointing my toes, and not being able to really see where I'm going. That's just insanely dangerous.

In the Winter Olympics there is far more of an element of risk involved than most sports in Summer Olympics. Okay if you go out for javelin catching you might run the occasional risk, but nothing compared to what happens if you lose it completely throwing yourself into the air off a 90-metre ski jump. They not only expect you to survive, but you're judged on style points and how neat and tidy a landing you can pull off. (Wind milling your arms in a desperate attempt to maintain balance counts against you.)

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to watch much of these Olympics this year except for a couple of periods of men's hockey. In the past fifteen years the only times I'll usually watch hockey at all anymore is during international events; the stuff that's played in the National Hockey League (N.H.L), and North America in general is just to boring to endure for long.

But put the game on a decent sized ice surface, where there is room to skate and make passes and it becomes something enjoyable again. It also dispels the myth that Canadians are the best hockey country in the world. At this Olympics Canada will be lucky to finish 6th after not even making it out of the quarterfinals, losing 2-0 to Russia.

What bothers me is how much media attention Canadian Olympic Hockey team has gotten. We have a speed skater who has four medals already at these Olympics; Canadian women are making huge breakthroughs in cross country skiing, winning a silver in the relay and gold in the 15 kilometre sprint; we won gold and silver in the men's skeleton, and have already exceeded out best results for medal totals at a games.

But the majority of attention is fixated on the hockey teams failure to score goals and medal. What I find especially ironic about all of this is that in the three Olympics that professional hockey players have been allowed to compete, Canada has only won a medal once.

The one medal, Gold at Salt Lake, only came about because Sweden lost in a fluke to Belarus, Russia was in disarray, and the Slovaks didn't have adequate time to put a team together. They ended up squeaking out a win against the American's who play the same style of hockey, but not even as good as the Canadians.

Hockey isn't even Canada's official national sport that, honour lies in the hands of lacrosse, yet it seems to be such a national blind spot. Any attempt to criticize the way in which Canadians play or are taught hockey is treated as treason akin to burning the flag in the United States.

All the euphemisms that are used to describe the way Canadians play hockey; willing to get their hands dirty, playing with heart, tough, and so on make it sound like skill and talent are irrelevant. Even the term for everyone's favourite type of player, power forward, implies muscle over talent. But what type of player does this end up producing?

Well, what we saw at these Olympics were big, hulking guys who had circles skated around them by faster, more talented European players. In their last three games of the tournament, Canada scored only three goals, all of them in one period against the Czech Republic, on a goalie who was having a bad game. Once he was replaced at the start of the second period the Canadians couldn't score again. If it hadn't been for the Canadian goaltender, making some pretty spectacular saves, Canada would have lost the game.

To be fair, that type of player is what's needed in the confines of the ridiculously small N.H.L. rinks where there is very little room to manoeuvre. Brute strength and the ability to run people over are much more important than being able to skate fast and pass the puck with any type of ability.

Even then, with the game built and designed for behemoths in mind, last years leading scorer was the 5'7" Martin St. Louis of the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. While people talk about how the players have gotten bigger and faster in the modern era, their speed has all the subtlety and skill of a run away car. They go straight up and down the ice, continually picking up speed, and running over all objects in its path, but can do little else.

There were eight teams in the quarterfinals for the men's Olympic hockey medal round. Canada's final standing will depend on who the losers are in this round and the next. If the teams eliminated have a better record than Canada did in the preliminary round they will finish ahead of them in the standings. I don't think it's possible for them to finish eighth, but sixth, and even seventh are very likely where they will end up.

The headlines across Canada, and front pages of newspapers, have all carried pictures of the dejected hockey players sitting on the bench as they watch the seconds count down in their loss. On the same day Canadian athletes had won four medals, two gold, a silver and a bronze, yet all it seems we're supposed to care about is one team's fortunes.

On a day we should have been celebrating wonderful victories all that was deemed worthy of reporting was a bunch of professional athletes losing a game. How do you think that makes the people who survive on spare change and usually train at their own expense feel? These guys, who make more money in a month than most Olympic athletes, who are put on pedestals by the press and subsequently the public, get more publicity by losing than others do by winning a Gold medal.

I'd be pushing for a ban on professionals in the Olympic games again. Send the dream teams home, be they basketball, hockey, or tennis. These games should be the hour when the people who strive for years to obtain the pinnacle of achievement in their sport are allowed their moment in the spotlight.

The media and the public barely recognise their existence except for these two-week periods every four years, and now even that is being taken away from them by the arrival of professionals in basketball, hockey, and a lesser degree tennis. The Olympics have fallen a long way from their original idealism, if it actually ever existed, but some essence of that still remains in the efforts of the athletes who compete and win through genuine effort, and skill.

There has been a concentrated effort to reform the Olympics. Corruption among officials is being rooted out, drug cheaters are being hunted down, (a little overzealously by Richard Pound is his desire for the spotlight) and they're even trying to make the arcane rules governing the judging of skating events understandable.

But as far as I'm concerned, if they want to keep the light on the people who matter, the athletes, they need to turn back the clock to the days before they allowed the professionals to participate. Be they the hockey players from the N.H.L. or the Basketball players from the National Basketball Association, they are a distraction from the rest of the athletes who strive and compete for their countries.

Give the games back to the people who spend their lives preparing for them, not the people for whom they are only an afterthought and something to do if they feel so inclined. I'd rather see a bunch of amateurs try their best and lose, than so ?called professionals achieve the same results and steal the spotlight.


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