Monday, 30 May 2011

NBA Finals preview: Is it time for the King to win a ring?

“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach”.

Those were the words that shocked a nation as a year of speculation, unlike anything America had ever witnessed in a purely sporting context, drew to a close.

“The Decision” – the hour-long prime time TV programme arranged to announce that LeBron James would be playing his basketball with the Miami Heat for the next six years – was ridiculed and despised in equal measure.

James had been the home town guy made good. A phenomenon during his high school years, he took the increasingly frequent step of by-passing college basketball to head straight into the NBA. When his home state franchise, the Cleveland Cavaliers, won the NBA draft lottery to secure the first pick of the 2003 draft they wasted no time in declaring James would be staying in Ohio.

He seemed destined to end Cleveland’s 47 year wait for a title in any of the four major US sports. As a 22-year-old he single-handedly dragged them to the 2007 finals, producing one of the all-time great performances by scoring Cleveland’s last 25 points in game five against the Detroit Pistons to get them there.

Yet, as Lebron’s star rose – and the expectation with it – year after year he came up short in the playoffs.

In 2009 James won his first Most Valuable Player of the league award, the Cavaliers secured the first seed in the playoffs with a franchise record 66 regular season wins and they even cruised through the first two rounds of the play-offs without dropping a game. When they met Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals, however, they came unstuck. LeBron’s one man show not enough.

Lessons were learned, or so they thought. The Cavs spent big in trying to build a team around James, including bringing in an aged Shaquille O’Neal, but it made no difference. Cleveland were again bounced in the playoffs, a round earlier this time by a veteran Boston Celtics side. LeBron’s performance in the elimination game at the Boston Garden one of his worst as a professional. As he left the court that night and pulled the Cavs jersey from his back, many a Cleveland fan feared they would never see him in one again.

Yet, the process became even more interminable than they could ever have imagined. Their hero kept them and the five other teams who had cleared the salary cap space to compete for his signature in the dark for weeks until on national television “The Decision” was delivered.

As it turned out the real decision had been made a long time ago. James had been convinced by good friend and fellow All Star Dwayne Wade to live the high-life in Miami and become arguably the most feared one-two combination in NBA history.
James was destroyed in the media for the manner in which he had stabbed his home town in the back. The one time declared “Chosen One” was now he was the most reviled one. In Cleveland his jersey was burned, a 212-foot wide billboard of him pulled down and even the Cavs owner Dan Gilbert took a swipe of LeBron’s play-off performances, declaring that the Cavaliers would win a Championship before LeBron did.

Wade and James were joined by a third All Star, Chris Bosh, as Miami tried to replicate the Big Three formula that had brought the Celtics the title in 2008. Not deterred by the degree of vitriol aimed at them, the Heat hosted a championship winning-style celebration for their arrival.

Doubts were raised over whether a team of three stars and very little else could succeed. Indeed they did have their troubles in the early part of the season. A 9-8start a far cry from the prediction of one prominent pundit who claimed they would only lose 10 games all year.

Yet, as James knows more than most, regular season record means little when it comes to playoff time. With the Heat cruising through the playoffs, winning all three of their series to date 4-1, James has proved to be everything his detractors claimed he wasn’t. No one doubted his talent but they claimed he couldn’t close a game or bring it when it really mattered in the playoffs. Match winning performances in games four and five against both the Celtics and Chicago Bulls have well and truly put that debate to bed for now.

Yet, as remarkable as it sounds, James’s story of vindication may not even be the biggest story of this year’s playoffs. For across the court this evening Lebron, Wade and Bosh will be confronted by a 7ft tall German looking to pen the final note on his own story of redemption.

Dirk Nowitzki has been one of the leading NBA players for a decade. Like James did in Cleveland, he has consistently taken the Dallas Mavericks to the playoffs without much of a supporting cast, only to suffer consistent heartache in April and May.
In his only previous trip to the finals in 2006 he also came up against the Heat. Dallas were favoured and sped into a 2-0 lead in the series before coming up against an inspired Wade, with a little helping hand from the officials, as the Heat won the next four games to claim the title.

Until this year that series had been a career defining one for Nowitzki. He was bullied throughout the series by Udonis Haslem, leading to accusations, levelled against many European players in the NBA, that he was soft.

However, the man from Würzburg performances in the past few months, particularly in the 4-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semi-finals, have reopened the debate over where he belongs in the pantheon of basketball greats. Most analysts have already declared him as the greatest international player in NBA history, but at 33 time is running out for him to claim that elusive title.

James and Nowitzki have taken very different paths to get to this point, but both are now just four games away from fulfilling their destiny. The German has America on his side, however, should Nowitzki fall short against Miami again, “The Chosen One’s” decision will have been vindicated.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Guardiola's humble nature defies a greatness that will stand the test of time

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side have many great qualities. One of the more subtle ones, often exuded by their coach, is their humility.

That humility was in evidence only a couple of weeks ago when having sealed the Spanish title for the third consecutive season, Guardiola batted away comparisons with “the Dream Team” – Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona side which Guardiola played in and won four successive league titles between 1991-94.

"This team can never compete with the Dream Team,” he said.

Guardiola knows better than anyone how the two sides compare. On paper their achievements are broadly similar, the current side have been far more dominant in winning their three titles than Cruyff’s were in their four and both can boast one European Cup triumph. However, the argument in favour of the Dream Team is not even in what they won but in their legacy. As Guardiola added, “they started this.”

For all the principles that have defined Barcelona over the past three seasons are all ones Guardiola, the ultimate Cruyff disciple, learned at the knee of the Dutch master. The 4-3-3, the passing style, the inter-changeable positions, the mixture of academy reared and imported talent, they were all implemented and used first by Cruyff in the early nineties.

Guardiola, much like Xavi Hernández in the current side, was a focal point of that team, a sprinkling of Catalan spirit to accompany the more stellar names of Romario, Stoichkov and Laudrup.

It is this continuity and faithfulness to a certain style which has seen Barcelona become the most attractive side in world football.

One story that defines that continuity from Guardiola’s time as a player to a manager more than most is of one of Barça’s current stars first ever training session with the first team. Guardiola, knowing he was coming towards the end of his playing time in the Catalan capital, pulled a 20-year-old Xavi aside and said: "You're going to retire me. This lad is going to retire us all."
That lad was Andrés Iniesta.

Yet, for all that this side owes a lot to Cruyff’s vision, the Barcelona of 2011 certainly no longer live in the shadow of the Dream Team’s success.

In many ways Guardiola’s statement that there is no competition between the two sides is true. But that is only because the current side have already surpassed its predecessor.

In Guardiola’s first season they became the first Spanish side ever to complete the treble. In his second they bagged four more trophies and broke the Spanish league record with 99 points.

This term they have faced a new challenge. Having won everything at club level, the club’s academy, La Masia, was now principally responsible for winning Spain’s first World Cup. Eight of the side that will start this evening were in that squad.

With the Spanish internationalists having played for three consecutive summers in the European Championships, Confederations Cup and last summer in South Africa, fatigue has meant some of the shine has come off of Barça’s performances since the turn of the year.

A fatigue that was only exacerbated by the emotional toil of four clashes with Real Madrid in what Guardiola termed “19 incredibly tough days” across the end of April and early May.

Those meetings with Madrid however demonstrated a side of Barcelona that is often overlooked. Famed for their beauty and elegance, Guardiola’s men showed a willingness to battle and play dirty when they had to.

It is not their most laudable characteristic, but one that every champion must have. With nine trophies in the three seasons that is something this side most certainly is.

Should they add another and replicate the Dream Team’s most golden moment by winning European football’s biggest prize at Wembley this evening, even Guardiola will find it hard to deny that his side haven’t matched their achievements, they will have surpassed them.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Football's greater evils not solely Scotland's shame

It has been an ugly season for Scottish football. Off-field issues have dominated throughout and, even in the past week, the role that sectarianism plays in our game has been scrutinised.

If there can be any positives taken from the re-emergence of this stain it must be that problems latent in society but evidenced by football can create a public platform for such issues to be discussed properly and honestly.

Unfortunately a pattern is emerging not only in Scotland but across Europe that this is not the case.

On Monday Uefa announced that Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets would face no sanction for the comments he made to Real Madrid player Marcelo in the first-leg of the pair's Champions League semi-final; comments that Real Madrid alleged were racist.

Whilst making such a grand and public stand against racism would have been welcomed, the justiciability of banning a player from a Champions League final with what could at best be described as inconclusive evidence meant that action against Busquets was never likely to be forthcoming. But neither Barcelona or Real Madrid come out of this affair with their credit intact.

Indeed, the most damming indictment of any guilt on Busquets’ part came from his own club. In the build up to the second-leg of the tie, not long after the allegations against Busquets had emerged, Barca coach Pep Guardiola appeared to accept some fault on behalf of the player, saying he had made a "mistake" but that it was up to Uefa to punish him.

It took some 10 more days for Busquets' reasoning that he had muttered the words "mucho morro" (you've got some cheek) to Marcelo rather than the "mono, mono" (monkey, monkey) that Real had claimed. Would such a big club, especially one which is never backward in coming forward in showcasing its sparkling reputation, treat such a serious allegation so calmly if they thought it was false?

For Real the allegations are potentially just as damaging. By submitting a complaint they almost certainly knew could not be upheld - and then denying they had done so - they stand accused of deliberately trying to sully their greatest rivals reputation with a tag of racism and in the process fan the flames of their own agenda that Uefa treat Barcelona favourably.

Yet, the biggest issue of all is that such a high profile incident has not sparked a debate in Spain about the problems of racism that undoubtedly are rooted within much of Spanish society.

As we have seen in this country, distasteful events at football matches are often just a reflection of greater societal problems. As we also recognise though, often the debate is ruined by arguments formed down tribal rather than rational lines.

The hypocrisy of much of the debate in Spain was symbolised in the coverage of the row by Madrid sports daily Marca. As Real denounced Busquets' actions, the paper – a mouthpiece for the club – ran multiple stories highlighting the “scandal”. However, it paid no such attention to comments by Barcelona right-back Dani Alves earlier in the season that racism in Spanish football was “uncontrollable”; so much so that many black players treated racism as something of an occupational hazard in Spain.

Across the Pyrenees, France’s own racial stereotyping scandal was meandering meekly towards a conclusion.

Three weeks ago the website Mediapart revealed secret recordings showing that national team manager Laurent Blanc and other senior officials within the French Football Association had discussed introducing quotas to limit the number of dual-nationality players at youth training academies.

The plan allegedly involved limiting the number of non-white youngsters from entering the national academies from as early as age 12 or 13. One suggestion revealed in a transcript of the meetings was to set a cap of 30% on players of dual-nationality origin.

According to the transcripts, Blanc reportedly favoured the idea of quotas and made comments regarding the multitude of "big, strong, powerful" black players in France. The transcript also showed him favouring players with "our culture, our history" and citing Spain as an example: "The Spanish, they say: 'We don't have a problem. We have no blacks.'"

Here again football has been used somewhat of a looking glass to problems related to identity in French society.

After France’s disastrous showing at the World Cup last year a number of prominent figures on the far-right of the political spectrum blamed the embarrassing exit on the number of players within the squad of West and North African heritage.

Forgetting that a side with much the same make-up won the World Cup on home soil in 1998, they targeted the squad as resembling a lazy attitude amongst the youth in French society. A youth they claim that did not know or care what it meant to be French.

Blanc was a fierce critic of the World Cup squad himself. For his first match in charge against Norway in August he suspended all 23 of the players who had travelled to South Africa and instructed all of his players to learn and sing the national anthem.

This week Blanc was also cleared of any wrongdoing by the French sports ministry who had called an investigation into the matter when the story broke.

Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno said: "It emerges very clearly that ways to limit the numbers of so-called dual-national players ... including putting in place quotas were, in fact, debated at the November French Football Federation (FFF) meeting. The subject was raised in a manner both clumsy and clearly uncalled-for. The general impression that emerges is really very unpleasant, with innuendos that very often were borderline tending toward racist.

However, they found that, "no fact shows Laurent Blanc approves of discriminatory procedures."

As the scandal fades into the distance, washed away by a country enthralled with the demise of a potential president, the issues at the heart of the matter still remains – is it ok to racially stereotype when in a position of power? And what does it mean to be French?

Football cannot take the full weight of responsibility for these incidents. It is impossible to be the people’s game without society’s problems, but by not coming down hard on such public and high-profile cases of sectarianism, racism or discrimination it does allow the attitude that such actions are acceptable to linger.

So Scotland does not stand alone in the ugliness of its game away from the field of play but it can learn from others mistakes. Shying away from the issue helps nobody. If such problems are debated, used for educational purposes and learned from they can at least provide a silver lining.

Sadly due to the tribalism of sport, next season will in all likelihood just see a repeat of such incidents becoming a vehicle for the hatred and discrimination to continue.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Braga seeking to escape giant neighbour's shadow on their maiden voyage to the biggest stage

It has already been a tough week for Celtic fans. Tonight’s Europa League final may only serve to prolong the agony as two ghosts of European suffering from season’s past and present meet in Dublin.

Unheralded Braga’s amazing European adventure started with a Champions League qualifier against Celtic in July. Now, after 18 games in European competition they stand just one more away from claiming only their second ever trophy.

However, that final remaining hurdle will be the biggest one they have faced all season. For the club whose stadium is built into a rock face, the task this evening is of Everest-like proportions. Their opponents the ones they have forever lived in the shadows of.

Less than 50 kilometres separate Braga from Porto, but in footballing terms the gulf between the two is gargantuan. Porto recently secured their 25th Portuguese title, are chasing their seventh international trophy and lie only two games away from a historic achievement themselves. Victory tonight and in Sunday’s Portuguese Cup final would see them replicate the league, cup and Uefa Cup treble achieved by Jose Mourinho’s side in the 2002-03 season.

It is that Uefa Cup victory, won 3-2 in Seville, that remains the bitterest of defeats for many Celtic fans.

There are distinct similarities between this year’s competition and that of 2003. In that year only a Henrik Larsson goal 10 minutes from time in the second-leg of the semi-final against Boavista prevented an all Portuguese final.

This time around Portuguese domination of the competition was assured with Porto’s stunning 5-1 triumph over Villarreal in the first-leg of the semi-finals. With Braga facing more Portuguese opposition in Benfica in the other semi, the eighth meeting of two clubs from the same country in the final was assured.

Indeed those two semi-finals symbolise the contrasting styles that have got both sides to the final. Porto have been unstoppable all season. They secured the title having gone undefeated with 27 wins and three draws from their 30 league matches. They have been equally impressive in Europe, losing only once and scoring 43 goals in their 16 Europa League ties.

Such domination has led to unending comparisons with Mourinho’s side that went on to win the Champions League in 2004. In particular, coach André Villas Boas, a former member of Mourinho’s backroom staff, has been hailed as the new shining light of European football and destined to follow in the footsteps of his former mentor.
However, the 33-year-old has often refuted those comparisons and has recently pledged his immediate future to the club. Villas Boas’ style is very different to Mourinho’s. The major difference between the modern day Porto and that of a decade ago is their relentless attacking intent.

Villas Boas has been more accurately compared by some to Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola for his loyalty to an offensive 4-3-3 system allied to intense pressing of the opposition when they have the ball.

The key figure in the success of that system has been striker Radamel Falcão. The Colombian has scored a remarkable 16 goals in the Europa League this year, breaking Jurgen Klinsmann’s 15-year-old record for a single European campaign.

On paper it looks like no contest. Porto finished 38 points ahead of Braga in the league campaign and beat them twice in doing so. Yet, Braga have defied the odds throughout the whole season. After beating Celtic they defeated Sevilla to progress to the Champions League for the first time in their history. Despite finishing with nine points, including a victory over Arsenal, a third place finish behind the Gunners and Shakhtar Donetsk saw them parachute into Europe’s second tier competition. Since then they have reveled in the role of underdogs by eliminating Lech Poznan, Liverpool, Dinamo Kiev and finally Benfica. In all those ties it has been a solid defense and a never say die attitude that has seen them prevail.

What has been most impressive about Os Arsenalistas – so nicknamed because of the resemblance of their shirts with those of the North London side – has been their ability to regroup after the loss of key players.

Last season’s incredible second placed finish saw the vultures swoop to prise their stars away. Portuguese international goalkeeper Eduardo left for Genoa. Then in January Matheus, who had scored both goals in the 2-0 win over Arsenal and centre-back Moises headed for pastures new.

This though you feel will be the last chance for this side. Manager Domingos Paciencia has already agreed to join Sporting Lisbon next season. Goalkeeper Artur and right-back Silvio have been snapped up by Benfica and Atletico Madrid respectively, whilst striker Lima is another expected to leave.

For Porto another trophy, another treble would be the icing on the cake. For Braga tonight represents the chance for something truly historic.