Sunday, 24 June 2007

Cross border challenges

Well imagine my surprise when I walked into the Eurostar frequent travellers lounge in Paris this morning. There on the newspaper stand was le Journal du Dimanche with the front page headline: "PS: Tout sauf Ségolène".

I thought that looks familiar.

The paper reported that La Royal had decided not to attend a session of the Socialist party's national council in Paris, preferring to chill out a few hundred miles away in Angles-sur l'Anglin in her Poitou Charentes stronghold. She was down in her hood for the signing of a sustainable development contract with Pays des Vals de Gartempe et Creuse even though she was expected in the capital.

A Socialist Euro MP Benoit Hamon told the council back in Paris: "We're not going to go far as a party if it's such a trial to get all the leaders together."

Hey Benoit with such clairvoyance and common sense you're not going to go far in the Socialist party. Ségo is going on TF1 on Sunday night though to say inter alia that she's up for being the presidential candidate in 2012.

Sgt Major Sarko and his squad are probably feeling themselves locked in till 2017.

Wow. I wonder what Arsenal will be like then. Of more concern to their fans is what they'll be like in 2007-8 now that Thierry Henry is going to play for Barcelona next season.

As a Chelsea fan of diminishing interest, this news makes me think it will be easier for Chelsea to beat Arsenal. But since Jose Mourinho took over at Chelsea, they've rarely lost against Arsenal.

But I feel some affinity with Henry since he is described as a talismanic skipper and I have styled myself as my football team's talismanic midfielder.

That is where the comparisons end. He scored goals of such adventure that he will be missed by all fans of football and watching another of his wonder strikes on Match of the Day will be a thing of the past. I might go and buy the DVD of Thierry's hot shots.
Or I might sign up to the cable channel in France carrying Spanish football.

The Arsenal he leaves behind are a work in progress. Lots of potential but yet to flourish. The youngsters played Chelsea off the park at the beginning of the Carling Cup final back in February. But I thought they were too keen on beating Chelsea beautifully. It didn't work.

It was grey and wet as the train pulled into London. With weather like that you know it's time for Wimbledon. Roger Federer is going for his fifth consecutive crown. Can he put behind him the defeat in Paris? Simon Kuper's Saturday column in the Financial times says we could see a shift in power in world tennis if Rafael Nadal wins Wimbledon.

I'm not so convinced Nadal will conquer the lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis Club but he has looked the more likely world number one. But I guess that's based on the fact that he beat the world number one to win Roland Garros.

Hey Paul with clairvoyance and common sense like that you will go far as a journalist.

I will need to see their first couple of matches. That won't be easy as on Tuesday and Wednesday there's a conference on inter cultural dialogue at the Council of Europe in Paris.

Journalists from around Europe will be there talking about cultural differences and how we can all learn to understand diversity.

Well as a sports reporter, I'd better go and learn the Spanish for: Another brilliant goal from Thierry Henry.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

You only whine when you're winning

The first journey back to London after a few weeks away always seems strange. Staying in Paris is the rarity so going to London after a three week hiatus shouldn't be that much of a problem. Obviously I'm out of touch. So much so that I'd inadvertently booked myself into first class on the Eurostar for the trip on Sunday morning.

I didn't harangue myself too much as I settled into a big seat and waited for the breakfast to arrive. With a four seat complex all to myself I decided to spread out. Papers strewn on one seat, the computer on the table ready to start watching a DVD.

But that avenue of pleasure was soon closed down when the headphone socket only let me listen for 10 minutes before cutting out completely.

With breakfast taken, I decided to tuck into the papers. The French contingent were going on about how Sgt Major Sarko was going to lead his boys into glorious victory. They were going to get 400, if not more, seats in the National Assembly. It wasn't going to be a "vague bleue", it would be a tsunami.

A power crazed president would have the political muscle to wreak havoc on all strata of French society. It's not right that a megalomaniac should have so much power, seemed to be the Socialist war cry. Well yes.

At the mouth of the tunnel the train eased to a halt. When this happens I know trouble is afoot. The announcement came over that we'd have to wait for 45 or so minutes because a train had broken down in the tunnel.

If you are going to be delayed, I was at least in a first class place. We reached London at 12.15pm, 75 minutes late and no chance of compensation because the delay was not Eurostar's fault.

This reminded me of the French Tennis Federation on the first day of Roland Garros when rain washed out six hours of play and they didn't give people their money back.

You can always skirt around these things on a technicality but it's just not good PR. If everyone was given a single ticket, then they'd all be in a much better mood. Ultimately not everyone's going to be using them. And even if they do, they have to buy a return, so the company would, I assume, make something out of it.

But I'm not a great sage of market economics. So I guess the marketing gurus at Eurostar have got their finger on the pulse. But it did prick my curiosity which was alive and kicking because my mind hadn't been sucked into the X Men 3 The Final Barrage of Pyrotechnics and Glib One Liners.

Maybe there's a moral there, professor.

So the new computer is being looked at in Wandsworth. The old computer, which is going to my partner, is being looked at in Tooting Bec. I, on the return journey on Tuesday morning, had nothing to look at save the papers.

And, even at 5.45am, it's juicy stuff. The tsunami didn't happen. The Sgt Major's party only got 323 seats out of 577. Only 323. Wah Wah. This is a crisis. But actually it's still a sexy majority.

An elegantly written piece on the front page of Le Monde suggests that the French people had injected balance into the political landscape. Or as François Hollande, the leader of the French Socialist party put it - elections are about the electors, not the predictions of opinion polls.

Well said that man. But those same polls did say the Socialists would be wiped out in the presidential elections. But nevertheless you can tell he went to one of France's top finishing schools for the political wannabes.

And maybe that's the problem. I've always thought that too many people from the same milieu actually leads to stagnation in any organisation. It's rare the boss who says: "You're not one of us because you're one of us."

So the Socialists lose again but they say they're chirpy because they didn't lose as cataclysmically as expected. The centre right win again but they're a bit sombre because they didn't obliterate the opposition. These reactions seem to epitomise what's wrong with the entire political establishment. Graceless. Almost conspiratorially disconnected.

There are real lives out here in the firmanent and party heads are sticking their tongues out at each other like children.

By electing 107 among the 577 MPs, France has risen from 86th to 58th in the list of countries with the most women in parliament. Still a long way to go and more needs to be done because at the moment it all seems like phallocentric posturing. Boys and their toys. Get a grip lads.

The UMP are fretting because they didn't break the 400 barrier. A tally that has somehow been imbued with magical properties.

But I detect some fragility here. Their majority is still very decent but it seems that they'd all prepared for the 400 plus seats line of justification once the flak starts flying over the pace and extent of reform.

If the changes are so fundamentally good, then there won't be much criticism because so many will benefit. But I get the feeling that the rich will get richer out of this deal and the poor will be marginalised.

And so maybe the careless talk just before the second round of a rise in value added tax to 24.5 per cent made many people realise that money has to come from somewhere to fund those income tax cuts which wooed so many to the Sgt Major's banner.

So while the UMP simpers after winning, Ségolène Royal and Hollande have gone their separate ways in the domestic sense. They are no longer the Bill and Hillary Clinton of French politics. Thirty years and four children after meeting at France's top school for political wannabes, he's moved out.

No wonder the Socialists are in such disarray, if these two can't get it right - the leader of the party and the presidential candidate - no surprises that the party couldn't prosper. Hollande says he's going to step down as party leader next year.

And she, a failed presidential contender, want's to take over as party supremo. It's like putting Dr Mengele in charge of the hospital children's ward.

In the prelude to the presidential election, Royal was trying to reach out to the centrist François Bayrou. Hollande didn't want to have anything to do with him. There was also a catchphrase which ran TSS - Tout Sauf Sarkozy - Anyone but Sarkozy.

The Socialist grassroots, if they really want to give themselves a chance of flourishing into a viable movement, should resurrect the TSS slogan and simply insert Ségolène.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Hat tricks in Paris

There was contrast at the end of the fortnight. Roland Garros started with clouds and showers and ended in beautiful sunshine.

There was symmetry too. Justine Henin won her third consecutive singles title and so did Rafael Nadal. The favourites had done their jobs.

As for the contenders. Ana Ivanovic was a 19-year-old bag of nerves. And Roger Federer was just error laden. You know something is amiss when the man with 10 grand slam titles gets the cheers against the defending champion who has just two to his name.

Maybe the crowd are growing tired of the Spaniard and would like to see Federer become only the sixth man to win all four majors. But this is terre battue. It's where grunting and grit reign supreme over stylish thrusts.

Roger you are to grass what Rafa is to clay. And there's no shame in that. The problem will come when Nadal wrests Federer's Wimbledon title from him.

I thought last year's final there was quite close.

Nadal served for the second set and he didn't take that chance to level things up at one apiece.

Federer won that set and after dropping the third he was struggling on his service at 1-1 in the fourth.

I was watching the final here in France and the commentator said something along the lines of...if Federer doesn't win this in four, I fear for his title.

Well Federer obviously heard him. He held for 2-1. Promptly broke Nadal for 3-1. Held for 4-1. Broke again for 5-1 and had the chance to serve for his fourth crown all within about 15 minutes of the commentator painting the doom scenario.

It all happened in such a rush that even Federer appeared flushed and dropped his serve. Nadal got back to 5-3. But on the second time of asking, Federer served out for what was at that time grand slam title number eight.

Since then he's added the US Open and the Australian earlier this year.

I've always thought there's a curse of the commentator. They often say: "We mustn't tempt fate."

But they go right ahead anyway and tweak it's nose. And once that proboscis has been tampered with, it unleashes a deluge of snort.

The 1981 Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg - incidentally the only other man to have won a hat trick of Roland Garros crowns - and John McEnroe was a classic example of the curse.

Borg had won the first set and was a break up in the second and one of the BBC boys - for it was only men who commented on the men in those days - said: "It would be a brave man to bet against Borg now."

Somehow millions must have metaphysically done so since this was in the time before shops opened on Sunday in Britain.

For Borg lost his service, the set and the match in four. He never returned to Wimbledon again, retiring from the game at the ripe old age of 26.

I wasn't listening to commentators while watching the finals at Roland Garros. Too busy thinking of what I was going to say myself.

But I did learn something long ago from Dan Maskell, the doyen of the BBC commentators and sure enough it was true.

Federer had about half a dozen chances to break Nadal to take a 4-2 lead in the first set. On about the sixth break point, I thought of Maskell because he'd always say something like, you get the feeling that if he doesn't break here, it will affect his concentration.

Federer didn't convert. Nadal held for 3-3 and Federer lost his next service game to go 4-3 down and ultimately lost the first set.

While watching the Chelsea v Manchester United Premiership showdown at the end of the 2006 season, there was something I'd never witnessed before: the commentator's vision.

United needed to win to stop Chelsea from taking the title. United's Wayne Rooney was doing his utmost to be the boy wonder. He was also trying his best to be a thug. Call it overzealous youth.

Anyway one challenge on the Chelsea skipper John Terry left him with blood seeping through his shinpad.

But Terry being a kind of scrape me off the floor captain wasn't going to leave until the job had been done. So yeoman John was patched up and sent back into battle.

Rooney also had a tasty nibble of Didier Drogba's legs and down went Cote D'Ivoire's finest. As far as I remember that's when Rooney was booked.

And the French commentators said well it's about time he had a yellow card. In fact he's lucky it's not red because the tackle on Terry should have been yellow.

When Rooney tripped and injured himself chasing a ball, the whole of Stamford Bridge went silent. This was bigger than the Premiership (for at 3-0 up that was now won), this was England's star striker. First man over to see Rooney as he was stretchered off was Terry who could have been invalided out of the approaching World Cup.

One of the French commentators said the injury looks bad and it could seriously harm his chances of playing in the World Cup. But the other said well look at the challenges he made on Terry and Drogba. Their World Cups could have gone up in smoke too.

He went further and said that the English referees weren't doing Rooney any favours by letting such robust challenges go. They weren't educating him to be an international footballer.

He shouldn't have been on the field to get injured was the attitude. And then came the soothsaying. One of them said: "If England are basing their World Cup campaign around someone like that, they'd better think again. Referees during the World Cup aren't quite as lenient as they seem to be in the Premiership."

I was in Gelsenkirchen for the England v Portugal World Cup quarter final doing a match analysis for the French service when Rooney's studs crunched into Ricardo Carvalho's groin.

As Rooney was given his marching orders. I was agape. But the match commentator, Eric, asked me for my immediate reaction.

It's at this moment that I experienced the commentator as bi-linear linguistic entity.

My short, sharp: "Shocked" response in French was not deemed compelling radio.

But it was wholesome radio. Because on the other frequency inside my head was an array of expletive drenched questions as to what the referee had seen.

But Eric wanted a tiny bit more from me. I was there, after all, to offer real time match deconstruction.

But the analysis I was undergoing was psychologically charged from more than 30 years of trophyless hurting.

I was so - to quote a phrase beloved of English footballers - sick as a parrot at the prospect of England being down to 10 men in the quarters that I would have had trouble formulating a coherent sentence in my mother tongue let alone a foreign language.

That was until I thought of the sagacious French commentators from that Chelsea v United match.

In fact describing Rooney's rashness from then calmed me down and - even though one level was mourning the probable end of England's World Cup dream, the other plain was giving a cogent overview in French as to why the demise was occurring.

The dream 2006 did fade in the penalty shoot out.

Seeing Federer's quest for immortality fail for another year has left me slightly sad. But he, like England, didn't deserve to win the match. He didn't take his chances and served poorly.

Maskell's was the voice that informed me of those kind of imperatives and inspired my early appreciation of tennis. His dulcet tones came from an era when kindly-looking English gentlemen wore crested blazers, pastel-coloured shirts, old college ties, linen trousers and buffed brogues. And he offered up quaint comments like: "That was a peach of a shot," or: "I say, that's a smashing shot."

I think Maskell would have adored Federer for his poise, power and precision especially on grass. And also for his gracious demeanour off the courts. I bet he would have had an anecdote or two from his years in tennis to console such a player after defeat.

Maskell commentated on the 1980 final when Borg won his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, probably saying something at the end like: "It's a magnificent achievement."

And it was. Pete Sampras, who won in total seven times at Wimbledon, was stopped from enjoying a consecutive fifth championship in 1999 by a certain Swiss teenager.

Eight years on from that fourth round win against the defending champion that 18-year-old is the man who can emulate Borg in London.

But yet he couldn't prevent another repeating Borg's feat on the clay here in Paris.

A long retired Swede is the big link between London and Paris. His is the name that dominates the record books at this time of the year.

If Nadal goes on to win Wimbledon next month, he'll be the first man to have done the clay/grass double since Borg in 1980. He had that chance last year and was prevented by Federer.

It's beginning to look like there are only two winners in town. Whatever Nadal and Federer are on, they should pass it on to the England football team.

But the commentators will probably have the final say.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Big champion, little champion

Maria Sharapova lost in straight sets.

After the Patty Schnyder incident the other day, I can't say I'm altogether upset. But there was a moment of truth during the match. Ana Ivanovic, all 19 years of her, was absolutely panning the Russian world number two. The Serb was 4-0 up in the second set but 0-30 down. I watched and wondered: Is, to use Schnyder's phrase, Ivanovic a little champion or a big champion? She pulled out some crunching first serves to answer the question and win the game.

Going 5-0 up in your first grand slam semi-final against a player with two grand slam titles under her belt put the Schnyder comments into perspective. Moreso when Ivanovic served out for the match on her first opportunity.

Ah Patty, you served for the match three times. You could have been a contender. Oh the joy and anguish of competition. Of course Ivanovic will be playing an altogether different machine on Saturday afternoon.

Justine Henin has won the French Open three times; in 2003, 2005 and 2006. And if she's victorious this year, she'll emulate Monica Seles who collected a hat trick of crowns back in the early 1990s.

Whoever wins it will be a good story. The young Serb for overcoming a non-existent tennis tradition or the driven Belgian who dreamed of being a champion but lost her mother.

Both strands have the makings of a film. I'm not yet sure who'll they'll get to play Henin or Ivanovic for that matter. Maybe I can dream up suitable candidates as they toil for glory on Saturday afternoon.

But I don't think I'll expand on my findings during my radio reports.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

The boys done good, honest

Of course the night before the big match I didn't sleep that much.

The boy has yet another ear infection so he was wailing at various moments. Not even the dulcet toned deliverers of international gore on BBC World Service could get me back to sleep. Or was that the night before?

I was proud of myself. I didn't transmit my anxiety to the eldest who had to be taken to school on Saturday morning. She obviously felt it was just another match. As I had my coffee at the cafe near her school, I broke into my pain au raisin and wondered how we would all cope with this must win situation.

Un peu de recul - as locals say after sporting fixtures here. Yes, let's just step back. Isn't any match a must win situation? Unless you're in some kind of Italian football match fixing syndicate, then the whole idea of competition is to win.
I've never knowingly risen from my bed of a Saturday morning with a view to straining the muscle in my left thigh and losing.

So I had the coffee and set off. What happened next will leave me mystified for a few weeks to come. Essentially the team with the worst defensive record in the league turned up with only seven players for a 9.30am kick off. An eighth was scheduled to arrive some time later that morning.

The referee was reluctant to get changed and was talking about forfeit. That would mean a 3-0 victory and the title. We gave them three of our substitutes so we could have a Saturday morning kickabout.

However by doing so the captain had somehow turned it into a 'live' game. But the majority of us on both sides thought we were out for a 90 minute trot. The loaned players performed with rare verve. Indeed the one who went in goal displayed an athleticism which put the actual official number one to shame.

At half time it was nil nil. In the second half one of the opposition decided to unleash some coaching clinic skills. Beautiful to watch and quite effective. They went 1-0 up. We equalised. I made it 2-1 and promptly left feeling my contribution as self-styled talisman was complete. They equalised, went 3-2 up and I was brought back on when one of our boys had to go home for family reasons.

We eventually won 4-3. The referee blowing for time after a second half lasting 57 minutes. "It's the last game of the season," he smiled. "And there was lots of time wasting....."

At least the generous gesture had been rewarded.

We were the champions. A part of me would have been happy to take in the 3-0 forfeit, the champagne and the metro back home before 11am. But that's not the path of a true competitor. The victory is sweeter having fought for it.

Would it have been as good if it had been achieved coldly and cynically?

Maria Sharapova seemed contented after battling her way into the last eight at Roland Garros on Sunday evening. The Russian saved two match points against Patty Schnyder and won it on her first match point. As Schnyder conceded in the press conference afterwards: Sharapova is a big champion and she is a little champion.

This is the guts of sport and as we watched from the commentary booth, the studio producer and I saw that Schnyder became fearful with victory beckoning and Sharapova simply grew in the face of defeat.

But it seems the quest for victory spoils. Sharapova was booed off the court. A large section of the crowd was unimpressed that she hit a serve despite Schnyder holding her hand up to say she wasn't ready to receive it. The Russian said in her press conference that she only saw the hand up after she had finished her service action. As the umpire didn't see Schnyder, he had no option but to award the point even though she protested.

Sharapova made no attempt to play a let. Technically she was within the rules but morally she was out of order. She came up with an explanation about not being Mother Teresa. I think we all knew that Maria.

Sharapova advanced some stuff earlier in the tournament about having gained perspective following the death of a coach's mother and her own injury problems.

Santa Maria. If this is what she's like after going to her first funeral, let's hope that nothing serious happens to any more of her entourage during her sponsorship laden career.

One of our team had a heart attack and died while playing in one of our matches last season.

I was there. It was at the ground of Saturday's opponents. Philippe turned up every now and again and played with wit and a sparkle in his eye. We all got some perspective that day.

If it had been 0-0 in injury time on Saturday and if the ball had gone in off my hand without the referee seeing, would I have owned up?

Of course. I'm keen to win and play to win. But from somewhere I've learned that it's not cricket to gain without embracing the spirit of sport. It also strikes me that while hunting for glory, you have to be able to dine out on the meaty tales of the mazy runs and gritty defending.

Those things can be for ever enhanced. And they often are by the time I get back to London to tell the colleagues over a drink on Sunday. There's going to be a vote on whether we take up the place in the higher division.

I'll vote yes. I might regret the decision after another 6-0 drubbing next season. But at least we got there. And it was honestly done.