Mid-winter pot pourri

2014-07-12 00:00

DESPITE all the doubts, Brazil has hosted its football World Cup with some style. The only home-made disaster was the performance of the local team in the semi-final against Germany.

By all accounts there has been plenty of fun and few hiccups. The football exceeded expectations in the early rounds with goals galore and enough upsets to whet the palate. The knockout stages through to the quarter-finals were predictably dull, the worst of which matches, both involving Holland, were only slightly relieved by the drama of the penalty shootouts.

The result of the first Dutch shootout saved me from the foolishness of a spectacularly reckless bet with a grandson who predicted from the first round that Costa Rica would win the whole thing. As he says of me, “Bangor knows nothing about football”.

I do know, however, that this is the second world cup that Brazil has staged, the first being in 1950 when there were several oddities that had no chance of being repeated in this modern era. Then there was no final. The winner was decided by a second group stage that ironically went down to the last match in which Brazil needed a draw and Uruguay a win.

Uruguay won 2-1 in a match in Rio do Janeiro that was watched by just 46 spectators short of 200 000. This still remains the record of the best attended match in World Cup history. Television of course was in its infancy and Fifa was yet to be corrupted by the quadrennial flood of money.

Of the 16 teams who qualified in 1950, only 13 turned up. India withdrew on account of not being allowed to play barefoot. The Scots had been told by the team’s manager that they would not go if they failed to beat England in the qualifying stages. They lost, stayed at home and have rarely been seen since.

In matters closer to my pay grade, there was a wondrous off air faux pas by the former England cricket captain, Andrew Strauss, when he unwittingly broadcast to the entire Australian nation that Kevin Pietersen was a “complete c***”. This was a delicious turn of events for it was when KP texted the South African team that Strauss was the Afrikaans equivalent that he got into such trouble.

Strauss, who was unaware that the sound feed Down Under was still on when he made his remark, saved his job with a truly grovelling apology to the English population at large. Still, the incident left no doubt in anyone’s mind that The Egotist will never again play cricket for his adopted country. Strauss is not the first commentator to be tripped up by a live microphone and will not be the last, but his crude comment gave probably the most accurate reason why the England management was right to dismiss the Tattooed Japie. Certainly none of the many statements released by the England and Wales Cricket Board has been quite so precise and succinct.

Although he has never said so publicly, Strauss probably felt that Pietersen should not have survived the messaging affair with South Africa. That Strauss has a reputation for sound thought is particularly damaging to KP and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the entire England squad had simply had enough of their hired gun.

To have watched Roger Federer’s act of defiance, fighting under the creeping evening shadows of his prodigious talent to win a Wimbledon final from championship point down, was to treasure every second of what became a poignant, near religious experience.

The fourth act of Sunday’s gripping drama raised the emotions of the entire centre court to fever pitch. There is no other sport that can do this quite like tennis when the crowd favourite is fighting to sustain his legend. With his back to the wall, Federer rolled back the years, shook off the defensive tennis forced upon him by a rampant Djokovic and transported us all back to the days of his predatory glory.

A year ago he had departed from the same scene stricken by his loss to the unknown Stakhovsky but here he was facing down the best that Novak Djokovic could throw at him in one of the most gripping finals ever played in the cathedral that is the centre court of Wimbledon.

In the end the loss of a mere half yard of pace and Djokovic’s refusal to surrender to the romance of the moment told against the great man. Even in defeat, however, this was Federer territory.

We had willed him to stop while he was ahead but now our only wish is for Federer to continue playing for as long as he wants so that he might continue to enthrall us with the grace and beauty of a tennis game that is like that of no other player. He quickly dismissed the post-match interview by the mewing Sue Barker with a curt “See you next year” so we know, thankfully, that we have another year to savour.

Closer to home, CSA received an early dividend from their reluctant endorsement of the new order in world cricket when the Proteas were given a bundle of four-match home and away Test series against each of cricket’s controlling triumvirate. This is good news for our team and their supporters and restores South Africa to their rightful place in the playing scheme of things alongside England, Australia and India.

These new arrangements will persist for a period of five years after which they will be reviewed. Whether the importance of all this is understood by CSA is entirely another matter. The local masters of the game would be dunderheads of note if they failed to realise that the Proteas will need to maintain their recent high standards of performance if South Africa are to sustain their lofty position beyond 2020. I will return to this issue in due course when the world of sport is not so alive with world-class events.

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