Posts Tagged Sport

Alex Higgins RIP

Alex Higgins (r) at Queen's University Belfast...
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One of the earliest memories I have is of being allowed to sit up with my Da one night in 1982 to watch Alex “The Hurricane” Higgins win his second and unbelievably his last World Snooker Title. I clearly recall my Da and I sitting on the edge of my bed rooted to the screen as the, even then, sleight figure of Higgins twitched and bewildered his way to glory.

Higgins was my hero on the green baize in the same way George Best was on the green turf. I’d spend hours playing their finest moments over and over, a running commentary in my mind for company. Studies suffered but the imagination (and for a while, my talents) prospered.

Both men came from a different religious tradition to my own. Both were products of the city, I of the rolling country around. Both were flamboyant and self assured, I was shy and uncertain. Both had an eye for a good time and a beautiful woman, I lived in hope.

I saw both play in the flesh strangely. Best in 1983, in a “pay to play” game for Tobermore United vs Ballymena United in the Irish Cup. They lost 8-1. Best was incongruous (tanned, shaggy haired, unmuddied) and anonymous throughout. It was exciting but it was never the same again for me. Higgins I saw in an exhibition series in Belfast when his decline had also already taken hold. The sparks were there but the fire had long gone out.

As someone once wrote: “Being a hero is about the shortest-lived profession on earth”.

While it is hard for us to watch our heroes unravel before our eyes, it must have been harder still for them. Both achieved so much, they each changed their sports and how we understood them to be played. Yet they must have known that they could have achieved so much more.

The long decline is something we must all come to terms with. But for some, there is much further to fall. To live out a life once the talent that defined it entirely has begun to fade must be a cruel thing. The subsequent frustrations of that decay and the ill health brought on by the addictions of high celebrity (and no doubt a particularly N Irish penchant for excessive indulgence) an added ignominy to be borne out in the public domain. This is not to excuse the worst of their behaviour – Higgins in particular left his hero status at the door when the cue was set down as far as I was concerned.

Yet still, it is a real sadness that yesterday Alex Higgins packed his cue for the green baize of the next life. The very real emotional and physical damage he had suffered of late had left him a mere shadow of the twinkle eyed genius who’d kept so many of us entertained for so long. It was hard to see that regression, to see a hero reduced by the confines of mere mortality. However, if accounts of his final days are to be believed then it may be a merciful conclusion.

Like Best, Alex Higgins was a NI working class hero. He upset a few, was reviled by some but loved and cherished by so many many more for what he did for his sport. For anyone who was alive to see Higgins in his pomp you will understand what I mean when I say that sport lost one of it’s true, unabated, unbowed and unabashed genius’ yesterday.

Higgins is once quoted as saying after one of his many career knock-backs: “I’m a realist. And me being a realist…I’ll be back”. Not this time Alex. But you’ll be missed. And never forgotten by many, not least by the young man who sat sleepy eyed with his father on the edge of his bed 28 years ago and knew he’d seen something very special; something untamed, something true, something fleeting, something flawed.

A bit like life itself.

Oíche mhaith, codladh sámh. Síochán leat.


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Forget the wet fish – just bring me a blunt instrument

My favorite international statesman Sepp Blatter has once again covered himself and the Footballing world in glory by suggesting that far from being vilified, John Terry would have ben “applauded” in Latin America (and many other parts of the world apparently) for his recent (alledged) off-field escapades.

It’s all an overreation, an anti John Terry conspiracy you see – driven by our quaint ‘anglo-saxon’ media apparatus apparently.

The man is beyond cringe-worthy. He’s just offensive and not fit for high office.

How can the man who is supposed to represent the world’s favorite sport get it so badly wrong so often? I don’t care what he personally gets up to and nor do I claim to be any sort of saint but in his role as head of Soccer’s World Governing body how can he suggest that sleeping with your close friend and team-mates ex-wife (mother to their child) while married yourself, then pay for her to abort your love child (all allegedly of course) before (allegedly) paying her not to sell her story to be a cause for applause anywhere at any time?

Leaving aside that the whole thing is a moral cesspit in any walk of life, at a time when soccer is pushing it’s Respect and Fair Play campaigns here in the UK surely the irony of the lack of respect, loyalty, team-ethic and fair play cannot be lost on him.

He’s an insult to those so badly hurt by this tawdry affair, the game itself, his profession and not least to the Latin American people.

Forget the wet fish I asked for in my last Sepp Batter inspired entry. Just bring me a blunt instument and let the real applause rain down.

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Can someone slap Sepp Blatter with a wet fish please?

Pele, Sepp Blatter - World Economic Forum Annu...
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Just watching Sepp Blatter holding court this afternoon with the world’s press.

Having first publicly humiliated the FAI by openingly laughing as he announced their (rather naive and privately laughable it has to be admitted) request to be included in the World Cup as team 33, he then had a little chuckle at the expense of Costa Rica before going on to utter the immortal line:

“The rules of the game have been the same for 124 years….” with a smugness that made me feel decidedly uneasy.

Wonderful. Nothing like a little progress in keeping up with the increased speed, technical proficiency, televised analysis and commercialisation of the sport…..

Video technology in football is an inevitability. Great to see the FAI press on with the campaign for that in their submission today. It’s a shame old Sepp and his cronies are oblivious to the fact that by allowing events like this to play on and on as they have over the last few years and refusing calls to assst referees with appropriate technologies they are in fact compromising the proud legacy of the great game rather than protecting it.

Oh – trout rather than salmon if you can please.

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Sophocles – look away now

iPhone photo - 32/365 - a hand, but not of god...
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“I would prefer even to fail with honor than to win by cheating” the ancient Greek playwright is reported to have once noted.

One wonders what he would have made of events in Paris last night as Thierry Henry and Le Blues pipped gallant Ireland to a place at the 2010 World Cup final with a little sleight of hand (or arm really).

I wish I’d had his proud words to hand last night as I tried to make a similar point to two poor unsuspecting French men in a bar in London as replays showed what most of us immediately expected – that Henry had illegally used his hand/arm, not once, but twice, to create what turned out to be the decisive goal in a pulsating encounter. Unfortunately I am ashamed to say I fell back on some less Athenian language to make my point – although the passion with which it delivered was certainly befitting the most celebrated of ampitheatres.  Wherever you are young Frenchmen, please accept this apology from the bearded, foaming, gestculating Northern Irishman you had the misfortune to sit beside last night. I wish you or your countrymen no harm.  Honestly.

Today it has been fascinating to watch the fall out of last night’s events – on mainstream news, on Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Radio. Some of the hysteria is a little misplaced (a boycott of French kissing has been mooted by a local wag as I understand it) but some of it raises some interesting and important points on sport and the nature of moral responsibility therein.

For a start, if anything good can come of this it will be to press forward the call for video technology to be used to determine – independently and scientifically – the outcome of contentious issues in a game of soccer. The game is too important at this level, too many have too much at stake (not least the fans) and the rewards are such that it is an act of almost willful incompetence that football’s governing bodies continue to resist calls for the introduction of supporting arbitration technologies. The arguments that it will disrupt the game or “it’s an exciting part of the sport” just do not wash.

The game is already disrupted with protests, injury, substitutions, the occasional streaker and (thank you Craig Bellamy at Old Trafford) prolonged goal celebrations. If they want to mitigate that then even limit teams to a set number of “appeals” or reserve only for disputed goals or penalty claims. 30 seconds seems a little time in the pursuit of just reward. Anyway – all those unfit referees will I’m sure be delighted of the rest-bite it will offer as a minimum.

As for the idea that “mistakes have aways been part of the sport”; it’s what makes it such a human spectacle”…well, lets be grateful Sepp Blatter and the boys aren’t in charge of anything really important otherwise we could be rolling back progress on the treatment of disease, turning a blind(er) eye to “well meaning” despotism and trial by jury – in fact no trial or criminal justice system at all for those not caught in the act of the crime, there and then. If you get away with it then the book is closed….I mean, mistakes, they happen and restorative justice well, it’s just so…’yesterday’.  

As a fan its frustrating, for a player even more so I imagine but another victim here is Ireland Inc.  Not just for the lost revenues of bar receipts of last night, today, the coming weeks or next year but all those relying on te success of the nationa team: merchandisers, the press corps, the travel industry etc.  Even Brian Cowen himself must have thought – just for a moment – of the ‘goodwill bounce’ that often comes with National success in the sporting arena.  The stakes were high. Too high to simply give a gallic shrug of the shoulders and say too bad – the referee missed it, case closed.

What I found most interesting today though were the views taken on the man at the centre of it all, Thierry Henry.  Type “Cheat” into your Google search bar (on Bing he makes the bottom of the front page if any-one’s interested – love their search page pictures though) and you’ll find that Henry appears 4th in the list of returns! 4th. But not only is he now synonymous with that most insidious of descriptors, none other than Time Magazine have named him “the biggest cheat in sports history”!! Now whether or not I agree with that is irrelevant – here’s the fact. This great – outrageously talented and until now unblemished – footballer is now synonymous with the word “cheat”. I can’t help wondering what he thinks about that – how he will reconcile himself to it or indeed if he thinks, ‘If only…’. For if only he’d drawn the ref’s attention to it and had the goal disallowed he might have changed the direction of sport irrevocably for the better.

He would have gone down in the annals of sporting history as one of the great sportsmen – one of the great men – of the modern age.  At a time when “cheating” is undoubtedly gnawing away at the heart of the game here was a chance – in front of the world itself – to say: “there is more to sport than winning at any cost”.  A chance to set a real and meaningful example to the thousands of impressionable young people watching on, to his fellow professionals, to those of us who hope for the best in our heroes.

But perhaps just as disappointing was to hear Damian Duff and a few other Irish players say today that “they don’t blame Henry” inferring it’s the match officials fault. Henry has said “ask the referee why he allowed it”. But it was entirely his fault – and no one – least of all Irish players should try to redirect the blame. The reason the referee didn’t call foul play was simply because he couldn’t and didn’t see it; nor did the other officials. Surely that was clear to Henry when the goal was not disallowed. If not then he is suggesting the referee was complicit /a cheat – as are those Irish players who “don’t blame” Henry.  Sadly it got worse as Damian went on to suggest that “if it had been at the other end I or Robbie Keane would have tried the same thing…you just don’t expect to get away with it” and for the first time I lost some sympathy for the boys in green.  Because suddenly its only a problem even for Ireland because he didn’t get caught. The act itself – well, sure we’d all chance our arm…wouldn’t we? And as long as we and Damian Duff condone that then we’ll always be at the mercy of well meaning but fallible human officials (shorn as they are of supporting technology). My goodness Damian –  did you really think it’s ok to say that and still expect some sympathy or for us to direct our ire at the hapless unsighted referee and not the cheat himself- what are we becoming?!

Still. To the victor the spoils they cried…but I sense/hope that time will tell that this was a hollow victory and Thierry Henry has made the wrong choice – for France, for sport and for himself.   As I watched him clap and smirk his way around the stadium last night post match I couldn’t help thinking of the proud principles that underpin the national shirt that he has worn with such distinction up to now: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. 

They think it’s all over…it is now. 

PS In any event, if we’d manage to convert one of the three gilt edged chances in the course of the game we’d all have been saved a huge load of grief and old Thierry could have shimmied back to Camp Nou, reputation intact and a summer of relaxation to look forward to in 2010. And that is a fact.

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