“Football is society,” Michel Platini, the former French soccer captain turned administrator, told me this year. “What is in society is in football. You have drug problems in society and problems of doping in football. If you have a problem of corruption in society, you will have corruption in football.”
I am sure I was not the only sports fan who found himself wishing wholeheartedly this year that the object of our passion could be a bit less like society, thank you very much.
Doping controversies; a match-fixing scandal; the world’s most widely publicised head-butt; a cricket ball tampering row; and the whole sorry catalogue punctuated with football “bung” allegations and more doping controversies, not forgetting the “beautiful game’s” supporting cast of diving strikers, sly defenders and bickering managers...What had happened to the zest, courage, spectacle and derring-do that can make sport such a glorious refuge from life’s fudges and complexities? Can it have been only the previous summer that I basked in English sunshine watching the best Test cricket series ever played?
Has it all got too serious? Has so much money gushed into what started off as trivial pursuits that too much is now at stake?
If that is the problem, there is little sign of the tap being turned off, particularly in football, the most genuinely global sport. In May, England’s Premier League announced that its latest auction of live domestic television rights had raised 66 per cent more than the last.
Since then, with the league’s main income stream secure until 2010, more wealthy foreigners have looked at following the examples of Roman Abramovich, Malcolm Glazer and Alexandre Gaydamak by investing in Premiership clubs. Randy Lerner, US billionaire owner of the Cleveland Browns American football franchise, was first to take the plunge, agreeing to buy Aston Villa in August. Three months later, West Ham was taken over by a consortium of Icelandic businessmen. It looks like Liverpool, which is in takeover talks with Dubai International Capital, may be next.
Meanwhile, new media flash images of top performers round the globe in seconds, creating instant superstars and further fuelling the interest on which the whole money machine depends.
But as stars are created, others depart. Did this less-than-vintage year for sport, I wonder, contribute at all to the decisions of so many topnotch performers to call it a day in 2006?
Racing driver Michael Schumacher, footballer Zinedine Zidane, tennis player Andre Agassi, swimmer Ian Thorpe, even Ouija Board, the champion racehorse, withdrew from the spotlight this year. And this week, the saddest news of all: Shane Warne, the irrepressible 37-year-old Australian spin bowler, is to retire from international cricket at the end of the present Ashes series.
The sporting stage looked especially gloomy this year if viewed from an English vantage point. This was due to the calamitous performance of all three “big” teams.
After the highest of high points last year, England’s cricketers have meekly surrendered the Ashes and may suffer a whitewash. The rugby union side – who, lest we forget, remain world champions – suffered a humiliating string of losses. And as for Sven-Göran Eriksson’s football team, the closest they came to anything inspirational in World Cup year, was the robotic dance routine performed by Peter Crouch, the ungainly but effective Liverpool striker.
It is hard to decide whether this woeful year for England is best summed up by fast bowler Steve Harmison’s opening ball to second slip in the first Ashes Test in Brisbane or goalkeeper Paul Robinson’s air-kick in the football team’s 2-0 defeat in their European championship qualifying match in Croatia.
Club football in Britain, by contrast, has rarely been so competitive (as well as flush with cash), with no fewer than nine representatives remaining in the two main European club competitions. From a nationalistic perspective, though, foreign players have played a huge part in this success.
The past year was not short of the unexpected, either. The prior year’s star pupil, cricket, was brought down to earth both by the ball-tampering controversy, which led to the first instance ever of a team – Pakistan – forfeiting a Test, and one of the year’s more surprising drug sagas. Two Pakistan cricketers, including Shoaib Akhtar, the world’s fastest bowler, were banned after testing positive for a prohibited steroid. Both the team and the players were subsequently cleared, however.
Shoaib and his team-mate were in good company. Justin Gatlin, the 100m Olympic and world champion and joint world record holder, and Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour de France in initially inspirational style, were among other big names who failed, or allegedly failed, drug tests during the year.
This time round it was tennis that stepped, rather unexpectedly, into the breach, with a year featuring the early salvoes in what might become an epic rivalry (Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal), the crowning of a hitherto unfulfilled talent (Amélie Mauresmo) and a heartening comeback (Martina Hingis).
The ineffably elegant Federer reasserted his dominance in the latter half of the season, winning Wimbledon, the US Open and the season-ending Masters Cup. On clay though, Nadal’s favourite surface, the young Spaniard looks to have the Swiss maestro’s measure. He overpowered him at Roland Garros while their five-set, five-hour tussle at the Rome Masters in May, also won by Nadal, was arguably the year’s best contest in any sport.
With Warne and Schumacher going or gone, Federer probably now vies with golf’s Tiger Woods alone as the supreme exponent of his chosen discipline. Woods enjoyed another dominant season in spite of missing the cut at the US Open in the wake of his father’s death. He won the last two majors – the Open Championship and the PGA Championship – playing nearly flawless golf. It seems hard to believe that not so long ago many were expecting a sustained four-way battle for supremacy in the sport between Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els.
Woods and his US team-mates were again unable to overcome their blindspot in the Ryder Cup, however, won emphatically by Europe at Ireland’s K Club, with Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and an emotional Darren Clarke in inspirational form. If that was the high point of Europe’s sporting year, it should also be noted that the continent supplied all four World Cup semi-finalists.
Other reasons to be cheerful included Munster’s long-awaited first victory in the Heineken Cup, European club rugby’s elite competition, and the best FA Cup final in a very long time – even if it was won, as always these days, by one of the big guns, Liverpool. The Champions League had the right winner: a Ronaldinho-inspired Barcelona.
On a personal note, I have also been pleased to observe that the Chicago Bears are again a power in the land. This, though, says more about the power of sporting brands than anything else. As a resident of the city, I worshipped Singletary, McMahon, William “Refrigerator” Perry and the rest of the team who won Super Bowl XX in 1986. Nowadays, I could not name one team member.
Even in a year as mediocre and unedifying as 2006, then, you could find something in sport’s broad church to lift the spirits. Ultimately, though, the abiding image will be of a showpiece occasion – the World Cup final in Berlin – marred indelibly by a piece of provocation that succeeded better than its perpetrator can ever have suspected.
Sport will have to do better than that if it wants its place as our theatre of dreams to be a permanent one.