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Why should footballers have to be role models?

In Sport on January 15, 2015 at 12:17 PM

“They’re all just so boring nowadays” – a common refrain about footballers today. But is the problem with them… or us? I think it’s largely with us. For many, the phrase harks back to a time before pasta, prohibited pints, Prozone, Sky football, all-seater stadia and foreigners; an era where players would have a drink with the fans in the pub after game. The golden era of football – supposedly (ignoring all the racism and hooliganism). But there are good reasons for the change in football – and footballer – culture, and a lot of them come down to us, the fans.

We’re so demanding about what players do these days, as if we want not only hope they are good role models but positively expect it. Admittedly, this is largely the media amplifying otherwise small concerns to sell papers. But this is part of the issue – players and clubs are so worried about the bad PR, they media-train players to within an inch of their life, squeezing out any character. Where’s the scandal, the rivalry, at the moment? The Keegan-Ferguson war of words? Cantona? (Ok, Balotelli is kind of equivalent to that.) Arsenal v Man United and Pizza-gate? Roy Keane v….well, the world? Much scandal today is comprised solely of Steve Bruce moaning about an offside decision. It’s very rare to see a player slag off the opposition these days, even if that’s QPR or Hull.

And you do not see many footballers expressing political views other than platitudinous – if thoroughly decent – stuff like ‘every kid deserves to grow up in peace’. It’s very rare for players to declare a party political affiliation, especially during their playing careers. Even for the Labour, which is arguably more likely to attract celebrities because left-wing politics is generally perceived as ‘nicer’ and less of a publicity risk. Regardless, footballers were notable by their absence from celebs professing party support at the last election (Frank Lampard quietly claiming to be a Tory and Sol Campbell, in retirement, criticising the mansion tax are two examples, but they are exceptions which prove the rule).

Not that I blame them. Recently, just look at the reaction to Myleene Klass criticising the mansion tax – fury and a petition for her to be sacked as the face of Littlewoods (yes, that well known charity which grew from being a betting company), as if views on taxation were as controversial as views on race or sexuality. Elsewhere, Gerard Piquet has been been criticised for comments merely supporting Catalans’ right to vote for their independence and Andy Murray got so much stick for his backing of independence he regretted sending his single, supportive tweet.

If you want evidence that the idea of footballers as ‘role models’ forces them to be act on some higher moral plane over and above the law, just look at the case of Ched Evans. Of course, the actions he was convicted for are abhorrent and I’ve got mixed thoughts on whether he should be allowed to play again for Sheffield United. But it’s unarguable that in most professions there would be no question that, having served his time, he could return to work and normal society. And, unlike a (more important) profession such as teaching or nursing, there are no direct reasons why his criminal conviction means someone who kicks a bit of leather around for a living is a threat to others in his job. Also, many fans feel betrayed when players ‘leave them’, as if footballers should be morally above the laws of free movement which everyone else lives by.

Other recent examples of mountains made out of molehills are Jack Wilshere getting a mauling in the press for – shock horror – having a cigar in a hot tub in Vegas in the summer break and outrage over Wayne Rooney swearing. This is all somewhat understandable – these guys are kids’ heroes (although I’d like to think parents and teachers influence kids more than footballers unknown on any personal level). My main point is that we cannot have our cake and eat it – demanding ‘characters’ in football yet jumping wholeheartedly on even minor transgressions.

Another apparent contradiction is the fans shout the most obscene things at footballers and expect them to be universally happy to interact with us. The Secret Footballer certainly has some strong things to say about fans – essentially, they’re all idiots, and many obnoxious so – suggesting many other players feel the same privately.

So, it would seem we can have footballers as ‘characters’ or role models – but not both.

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Could El Clasico be no more?!

In Sport on November 27, 2014 at 1:10 PM

Big change may be soon be afoot in Spanish football. The country’s football league chief, Javier Tebas, claimed, ahead of the possibility of an independence referendum for Catalonia on November 9, that Barcelona would not be allowed to compete in La Liga if the region broke away from Spain. He claims legislation only allows one non-Spanish territory to compete in the Spanish league system, and this is currently occupied by Andorra FC, who play in the sixth tier of Spanish football.

Today, president of Catalonia’s regional government Artur Mas has called off the official referendum in reaction to Madrid’s continued insistence that it would be unconstitutional – but he has said there will be an unofficial vote, organised by volunteers, in which Catalans can express their views. So although there is no imminent separation, Madrid’s refusal to sanction a referendum could serve only to inflame already significant separatist fervour. Polls show Catalans’ voting intentions are split roughly down the middle, with much depending on what type of agreement is being offered, but a strong majority – about 80% – want a say on their future. Indeed, David Cameron is regarded as something of a hero in the region for granting this to Scotland, even though many Catalans do not generally share his political views.

There is certainly a lot of momentum behind it. On September 11, the National Day of Catalonia, 1.8 million people brought Barcelona to a standstill by forming a dramatic ‘V’ shape along two main roads in the striking red and yellow of the Catalan flag – the ‘V’ standing for “votar” (voting) and “voluntat” (will). And president of Catalonia’s regional government, Artur Mas, had seemed willing to defy Madrid, talking of his commitment “to call, to organise and hold a referendum and let the Catalan people vote”.

Real Madrid and Barcelona have long mirrored, if not actively shaped, Spain’s complex political and social history. Real Madrid, traditionally at least, is the ‘regime team’ – it translates as Royal Madrid. It was General Franco’s team, and he used to use them as a means of advertising the regime’s supposed successes and the ‘Spanish way’. The notion of “la furia” (the fury), football based on character as opposed to ability, became prominent. After they won the Copa Latina in 1955, all squad members were granted the Imperial Order of the Yoke and Arrows, and president Santiago Bernabeu had the Grand Cross of Civil Merit bestowed upon him a year later. Barcelona, meanwhile, sees itself as an expression of Catalan identity – hence the slogan ‘Mes que un club’ (more than a club) – and the underdog fighting a corrupt system.

One major flashpoint in the rivalry dates back to the semi-final of the Generalissimo Cup in 1943, four years into General Franco’s dictatorship. Barcelona travelled with a 3-0 lead from the first leg to Madrid, where they received a surprise guest in their changing room before kick off – Franco’s director of state security. He told the players: “Do not forget that some of you are only playing because of the generosity of the regime that has forgiven you for your lack of patriotism.” They lost the match 11-1. Thereafter, Franco suppressed political opponents, the Catalan language (and others) and cultural activities, for many rendering football the best, or even only, outlet for expression of opposition and Catalan identity. Still, some Spanish people (or ‘people in Spain’?) are relatively indifferent to the fate of the national team, if not actively wishing them to lose. Indeed, many have claimed regional divisions in the Spanish national team have accounted for its relative lack of success until recent years – though these doubts are probably overplayed.

Most players have kept their thoughts on the issue of independence to themselves – a wise move considering the criticism received by Andy Murray for declaring support for an independent Scotland in a not dissimilar situation. And indeed received by Gerard Piqué for merely supporting Catalans’ right to have a referendum: “I defend the rights of the Catalan people to express themselves. It’s important they are allowed to do so. That’s another thing though, I’m happy to play for Spain. If they want me to keep playing, then that’s what I’ll do. I don’t know if people watch me through a magnifying glass. I express my opinions because I am a citizen as well as a footballer, if I feel like I have to say something, then I will. I don’t think it affects me as a footballer at all.” Xavi is another prominent player to have strongly advocated a referendum. In fact, there is already a Catalan national team which plays in unofficial friendlies. Quite a tasty line-up it has too, featuring as it does Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and (formerly) Victor Valdes and Xavi, all of whom won Euro 2012 with Spain.

Andy Mitten writes on ESPN that “if Catalonia were to join FIFA and UEFA independently of Spain, the assumption is they would have to form a separate football league too, as did the Balkan countries in the 1990s.” There are currently 10 professional teams in Catalonia, of which Espanyol are the only other team in the top flight. I don’t wish to ignore or belittle those teams, but I’ll focus on the impact separation could have on Barcelona because of their global reach. If Barca were to leave the La Liga (although any move might not be permanent), it would be a tectonic shift in the power structure of Spanish football – and also complicate how, indeed if, Barcelona would qualify for the Champions League. They and Real Madrid have dominated the league since the 2004-05 season, when they finished 15 and 19 points clear of nearest rival Villareal respectively. Since then, until Athletico Madrid’s surprise La Liga win last season, the average points gap between these two and the team in third have been, respectively, 12, 5, 12.5, 12.5, 26.5, 23, 34.5 and 17.5.

So basically, Spanish football for the past decade or so has been a joint fiefdom between the two; a duopoly that would be broken up under competition laws by the regulators in most industries. Obviously this is far from ideal from a fans’ perspective, as many games later on in the season are reduced to fairly pointless games between mid-table teams playing each other or teams going through the motions against one of the big two. But still, two is better than one, especially when the two teams are probably the greatest in world football at the moment (with the possible exception of Bayern Munich). And particularly over recent years El Clasico has accrued, for many, the mantle of biggest club game in world football – certainly the estimated viewing figures of around 400 million a match bear this out (Liverpool v Manchester United is widely regarded the other pretender to this title.) Former Real manager Jose Mourinho said: “When Madrid plays Barcelona, the world stops. It is definitely more than a normal league match.”

Just think of all the footballing majesty we would have missed without El Clasico – Bale’s stunning, running-through-the-technical-area, injury-time winner in April’s Copa del Rey final; Messi weaving through half of the Real team as if it were a school game rather than a Champions League semi-final; Ronaldinho being so good that even the Bernabeau gave him a standing ovation; this 4-3 thriller; the ‘birth of tiki-taka’ in a 6-2 Barcelona win at the Bernabeu. And this is not to mention the Messi v Ronaldo sub-plot or all the mind-games, melees and melodramatics, which, unappetising as they are, are bloody good entertainment, let’s be honest. Most notably the pig’s head thrown at Luis Figo by bitter Barcelona fans and basically any game involving Pepe, who you can always rely on to start to start a mass brawl due to his ability to act like a thug one minute and a petulant cry-baby the next.

All this is to say that – while I sympathise with Catalonians’ desire for independence and the associated grievances with the government and monarchy, and I of course think politics is more important than football – I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there a little voice inside my head thinking, similarly to a hysterical Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons, won’t somebody pleeeeease think of the football?!

Football needs to scrap the double punishment for last man offences in the box

In Sport on March 12, 2014 at 4:16 PM

As Arsenal lick their wounds after last night’s aggregate 3-1 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, many are looking back in regret to Nicola Rizzoli’s decision to send off Wojciech Szczesny in the first leg. Although David Alaba missed the resulting penalty, and Fabianski deputised very well for the Pole in the second leg, there wasn’t much doubt that the decision turned the tie in Bayern Munich’s favour. Defending against Bayern with 11 men is hard enough, as their 49-game unbeaten run and average three goals per game this season testifies. (Ok, maybe I’m clutching at straws a bit, but, as a Gooner, it’s a good coping mechanism).

Even many neutrals said it was the wrong decision and that ‘killed the game” (a slightly spurious phrase personally, as the ref has no obligation to making games entertaining – merely fair) . I don’t quite agree, though – it was the right decision, but under the wrong rule. The rules clearly state that committing a foul which prevents a goalscoring opportunity incurs a red card, so the ref made the correct decision. Szczesny was the last man and did not play the ball. And just to pre-empt any suggestions of sour grapes on my part, I also thought the rule was unfair on Tottenham in their visit to Stamford Bridge this weekend (as with many other occasions). On the hour, with Chelsea 1-0 up, Younes Kaboul made slight contact with Eto’o’s back and the Cameroonian went over. What wouldn’t have even been a yellow outside of the box was deemed a red, Hazard converted the spot kick and what had been an even contest turned into a bit of rout for Chelsea. Although anyone who saw Spurs’ two defensive howlers for Chelsea’s third and fourth goals will testify that the scoreline was not just down to Chelsea’s numerical advantage, it certainly helped.

So my truck is with the rules. Surely, the whole point of the red card is to compensate for the probable goal that would have been scored. So reds for last-man fouls outside the box makes complete sense. But inside the box the penalty usually presents as good a chance to score as the denied opportunity, if not a better one. So in many cases, issuing a red card for a challenge in the box just represents a needless double punishment. Defenders and keepers should have the luxury of being able to go into the dramatic last-gasp challenges the punters want to see without, if they get it wrong, being down both a goal (probably) and a man.

One argument is that changing the rules could open a can of worms for referees, but as the controversy over the current rules show, they are already criticised under the current rules. And giving the refs discretion in this area might be hard to implement, but it could be combined with video technology, successful in other sports, and/or a rugby-esque sin-bin rule so even the team misses the penalty they have still gained some advantage.  It could, I suppose, encourage cynical fouling of players through on goal, but this is not bound to happen if the ref retains the power to send people off for last-man challenges in the box.

Whatever you think, surely there’s a world of difference in principle between a non-dangerous challenge mistimed by mere milliseconds and the type of challenge Lee Cattermole has made his trademark…

Squash World Championships – Round Two

In Sport on October 30, 2013 at 12:31 AM

Ramy Ashour will be glad of a rather more comfortable second round game here in Manchester, after nearly finding himself one game away from exiting the competition at the first hurdle yesterday.

He eased to a 11-6, 11-6, 11-4 victory against compatriot Fares Dessouki in just 23 minutes, never looking rushed and the game often looking like an exhibition for the Egyptian.

Especially in the third, where Ashour pulled off a couple of volleys that it seemed the laws of physics would not permit.

He has this unique ability to make volleys few, if any, others could, and return with interest – deep the back court, as here, or very tight to the front wall – those that his peers could only hope to scramble back.

He will face Cameron Pilley in the next round, who beat Nafiizwan Adnan 11-9, 11-3, 9-11, 11-6

Peter Barker suffered some horrid luck, as a calf injury forced him to bow out from a winning position.

The Essex player, seeded 7th, would have had high hopes for the tournament given his form this year, which has seen him beat Nick Matthew to reach the final of the Canary Wharf Squash Classic and win his fourth Colombian Open, beating Omar Mosaad in the final.

And he had won the first two games comfortably here – his opponent, Henrik Mustonen, moving fairly well but having little to really hurt Barker with.

So the frustation etched on his face, when he pulled up sharply running for a front-court ball at 9-6 down in the third, was understandable.

After letting out a big shout, he stood still and silent for around 20 seconds before hobbling off for the designated three-minute injury break.

On returning he hit an ambitious smash nick attempt – the only really viable option in his state – into the tin, and had to retire.

The Finn, obviously pleased to go through even if in “not the nicest way” to do so, will face Indian Saurav Ghosal, who beat the higher-ranked Alister Walker in four, with Mustonen expecting a fast-paced game between two players with impressive retrieval.

Amr Shabana, four-time World Champion, who is returning from a long spell on the sidelines, showed signs of his best in beating Mathieu Castagnet 11-8, 11-7, 12-14 11-6.

The Egyptian displayed his vast array of flicks and tricks to outfox the Frenchman, but looked far from his past glories at times so it will be interesting to see how he fares against more slightly stronger opposition.

And his next match against Miguel Rodriguez, who beat Leo Au in three, promises fireworks – Shabana’s tricks against the Colombian’s legendary movement of super-quick, almost crab-like steps and outrageous full-length dives.

The opposition after that will be Nick Matthew or Omar Mosaad, both of whom won fairly comfortably in straight sets.

There were no major shocks in the lower half of the draw, which will please James Willstrop who has got other things on his mind at the moment, with his partner one week overdue with their first child.

Thankfully for the pair, she is former former World No.1 Vanessa Atkinson, so understands the demands on his time and his desire to win.

He said: “It’s a decision I made with Vanessa that I would play; she is not on her own which makes it easier. I’m not sure exactly how we will react when the baby comes.

“If it’s in the middle of the night, what should I do? We’ll play it by ear, really.

“At the moment I try and stay focused for the hour or two during the match and around it – and the rest of the day it’s all about Vanessa.

“I guess it puts everything in perspective and in the big scale of things, squash is not that important.”

Willstrop will play Spaniard Borja Golan, who beat Cesar Salazar in a straightforward 11-4, 11-6, 11-3.

Big-hitters Simon Rosner and Mohamed Elshorbagy will also meet in the last 16 after recording straight-games victories.

Elshorbagy wasn’t posed much difficulty by Omar Abdel Aziz, but the story was nearly very different for Rosner, who took just under an hour – very long for three games – to see off his tenacious opponent, Abdullah Al Mezayen.

First the German was forced to win the game deep into the tie-break, then Al Mezayen went through the wars to salvage the second set.

First he took Rosner’s not inconsiderable shoulder to his eye then diving full out and unsupported for what was, frankly, a lost cause. His efforts told slightly in the third, which he lost 11-5.

Karim Darwish also won in three, 11-7, 11-5, 11-3 against Finn Olli Tuominen.

He will play Darly Selby, who won a tense 75-minute match against tall South African Steve Coppinger, who got very frustated with the officials.

It probably had a fair bit to do with Selby too, who must have seemed like a fly Coppinger couldn’t swat – regularly retrieving balls he had no real right to get, and coming back from 9-7 down to take the crucial 2nd game 12-10.

Coppinger played some impressive squash to take the third 11-9, but seemed spent by his efforts, as he lost the fourth 11-3.

Number two seed Gregory Gaultier was once again in fine form, beating Australian qualifier Matthew Karwalski 1-9, 11-3, 11-5, and will face Tarek Momen, who beat Nicolas Mueller 5-11, 11-5, 11-4, 11-3.

Canary Wharf Squash Classic: final

In Sport on March 23, 2013 at 12:33 PM

James Willstrop won his fourth Canary Wharf title under the lights at East Wintergarden, beating Peter Barker 11-8, 5-11, 11-3, 11-4.

Before a packed crowd, Willstrop – who has played in each of the tournament’s ten years – put in a faultless display to overcome no.4 seed Barker, playing some of the best squash of his career at the tournament having beaten no.1 seed Nick Matthew 3-1 in last night’s semi-final.

Willstrop said: “I am very happy. Winning titles at this level is just getting harder all the time.

“The work all of us put in as we try to win is immense – especially here in London, one of the great venues and such a wonderful event.”

Willstrop should know, having been at the top of the game for over a decade, and faced many a battle with Peter Barker, with the head-to-head in PSA tournaments now standing at 18-1 in the tall Yorkshireman’s favour.

But facing Barker on such a run would seem a tougher challenge than usual, the Essex player having dispatched world no.27 Alan Clyne fairly comfortably in three in the first round, world no.12 Tom Richards in four in the next, then Matthew last night.

And so it proved, right from the off – Barker taking the first four points of the match, with two being awarded as strokes as Barker forced Willstrop out of position.

But Willstrop forced his way back to 6-6 – the pair fighting out several long rallies with neither giving an inch for their opponent to jump in on the attack and volley.

Of the next five rallies, one long rally went to Willstrop, three were called as lets and one as a stroke to Barker (in general, the match was much cleaner than Barker’s semi-final against Matthew, though).

Yet Willstrop kept his nerve after these tense exchanges, at 7-7, to go on to take the game 11-8 on the back of a cleverly improvised smash down the line, a great cross-court length and a couple of tight drop shots.

Barker fought back in the second, racing to a 6-2, then 10-3 lead, while showcasing his much-improved front-court play on display this tournament, which he remarked on afterwards – as a watching coach said, “if you can out-drop Willstrop, you deserve to win”.

Here, Willstrop got two back with some smart drives – but, after what must be said was a soft let in favour, Barker took the game thanks to Willstrop hitting the ball back on himself

Barker also took the first point of the third, with a great delayed boast which wrong-footed Willstrop, but lost the second due to some stern refereeing in, first, calling the no let when Barker was a little wrong-footed and running awkwardly, and then not allowing Barker to review after he had waited to see the replay on the big screen.

From here, Willstrop started to build a commanding lead, starting to pull the strings with smart drop shots after Barker, despite some great retrieval, could only loop or boast (side wall to front wall) some of Willstrop’s perfectly-executed lobs.

Willstrop’s control continued in the fourth, winning the first six in the game, meaning he had won ten straight points.

Barker mounted a small comeback, increasingly trying to beat Willstrop at the front court, but the Pontefract player – moving, as noted by many fans, as well as he has ever done – handled nearly everything Barker threw at him, and usually replied with even more – winning the match with a drive after Barker was the first to leave the ball even an inch loose in a drop/counter-drop exchange.

“Willstrop’s four in the world and I don’t think he’s happy with that – he wants to be back at the top of the game again,” Barker said. “He’s played well all week and he deserves it.”

“Last night, I was really trying to puff it up and put in another performance today. Not quite there, but a pretty good week for me.”

…A bit of an understatement, in truth, from Barker – if a typically humble one – considering he came in to the tournament a major injury doubt after the Kuwait Cup. And that now the 575 ranking points he will receive may well take him above Amr Shabana, up to no.7 in the world rankings.

Indeed, it was a great week for nearly everyone involved in the tournament – thoughts echoed by John Garwood, the Group Company Secretary of tournament sponsors Canary Wharf Group plc.

He said: “Every night this week, we have seen about a dozen reasons why squash should be an Olympic sport and golf shouldn’t.”

Amen to that.

Canary Wharf Squash Classic: semi finals

In Sport on March 22, 2013 at 11:31 AM

Peter Barker stunned three-time reigning champion Nick Matthew to win last night’s semi-final 11-7, 11-9, 7-11, 11-8.

 

The victory will be doubly sweet for the no.4 seed, having struggled with injuries this season and with a head-to-head record against Matthew which, in his words, is “still is embarrassing, really” – two wins to Matthew’s 20+ plus, 18 of which in PSA tournaments.

 

He said: “I’ve had a few injuries this season and to put a performance in like that in front of my home crowd is pretty special.

 

“It’s good to get a win over Nick. I got a bit lucky at the end; I was fishing a bit, using any trick of the trade.”

 

He certainly did employ some… intelligent movement, let’s say, at the end of the fourth, going from 8-8 to matchball at 10-8 courtesy of two dubious strokes; the latter of which when he shaped up to hit a volley then decided – or perhaps given what he said, engineered – to instead take a step back, as if to hit it after the bounce, into Matthew, and call an infringement.

 

(Such play in squash is very difficult to officiate, and not dissimilar to judging if footballers have ‘manufactured contact’ to win a penalty. An off-duty referee I spoke to afterwards said earlier in the game this decision would have probably only been a let, but that the ref had no leeway at such a crucial juncture).

 

However, Barker getting to 8-8 up in the fourth was little down to luck; indeed, if anything Matthew probably got the rub of the green earlier in the many tough decisions the ref had to make.

 

At 7-7 in the first, for instance, the ref had made 14 let (I.e. no let/let/stroke) decisions – nine of which called by Matthew – for the 14 points actually registered on the scoresheet.

 

And in one sequence of three points, Matthew was awarded two borderline strokes, before Barker was given a let for what looked a clear stroke, certainly to Barker and the audibly sceptical crowd.

 

But in spite of the (undeniably crowd-pleasing) controversy – or indeed because of it, let calls partly showing faith in player’s retrieving ability – there was some quality squash played, with many long rallies down the lines which then exploded into flurries of activity upon a well-placed drop.

 

At 7-7, Matthew made an uncharacteristic error on a drop, before Barker executed a similar one to perfection – then, after another controversial let in Matthew’s favour, Matthew missed an ambitious volley drop on the stretch, probably aware of the quality needed to win every point.

 

On the other hand, on matchball Barker made a tricky squeeze drop to win the game – which was greeted with a big fist pump.

 

With the standard of play so high, both players went to increasingly fine margins to win points, so the play began to open up.

 

Barker took the second 11-9. But even then, many – including the crowd around me (“Peter’s red-lining”) – believed Matthew’s infamous fitness tenacity and fitness would win out in the end.

 

So it proved in the third, which Matthew won 11-6. But it was a tenser game the scoreline suggests – being 6-6 at one point, and with both players, judging by their exchanges with the ref, feeling the pressure.

 

Given just a let at 2-1 down, Barker asked: “John, you said earlier to him there was no room to play that – what’s the difference?”. “You did have room,” came the ref’s blunt reply, much to the crowd’s amusement.

 

And 5-3 up, when Barker called his own double bounce, Matthew asked the ref what his call was. The ref replied that the ball was not up because Mr Barker called it, and a chippy Matthew replied: “Can you call it please and not rely on him?”

 

Still, Barker held his nerve to take the match 11-8 in the fourth – even if a little “fishing” was required.

 

In the final, Barker will meet James Willstrop, after the tall Yorkshireman beat Mohamed El Shorbagy 6-11, 11-8, 11-9, 11-7 in the other semi.

 

The young Egyptian came out of the blocks firing, significantly improved on what was, by his own admission, a sub-par performance qualifier Henrik Mustonen in the quarters.

 

From the start, El Shorbagy matched Willstrop in the long rallies – typically Willstrop’s forte – and was able to finish several rallies smartly with clever drops and tight drive-cum-drops, taking the first 11-6.

 

However, after the first game, though El Shorbagy was still hitting and moving very well, Willstrop was largely able to control the rallies with his long reach from his 6’4” frame and vary the pace brilliantly, going on to take the following games to 8, 9 and 7 respectively.

 

But Willstrop was full of praise for the rising star, with whom he is already developing an intriguing rivalry – the Yorkshireman having lost to the Egyptian in a thrilling five-game World Championship semi last year, but avenged the defeat with a 3-0 in the Kuwait Cup last week, and now here.

 

“Mohamed and I have developed a great rivalry and respect. He beat me in the semi finals of the World Championships to show how dangerous and talented a player he is,” he said.

 

“I am happy with my movement and the way I am playing, but there’s another massive battle looming tomorrow, where I will need everything to be working.”

Canary Wharf Squash Classic: quarter finals

In Sport on March 21, 2013 at 12:28 PM

All four top seeds progressed from the Canary Wharf quarter finals yesterday, setting up two mouth-watering semis today.

Egyptian rising star Mohamed El Shorbagy had to fight hardest to get there, pushed all the way to the final fifth game by a tenacious performance from qualifier Henrik Mustonen.
Any suspicions the 22-year-old would be overawed by the occasion – his only previous match against a top five player was another five game match that went El Shorbagy’s way – were soon dispelled as he won the first game 11-3 on the back of some delicate drop shots, and errors from El Shorbagy, seemingly trying to finish rallies a little too ambitiously even for him.
He shored up his game in the second, with the result many long rallies showcasing both players’ athleticism and, particularly, the Egyptian’s versatile shot-making – including an occasional kind of topspin drive betraying his fondness for tennis (which usually works to the detriment of squash’s short, snappy hitting).
But El Shorbagy’s powerful play was not enough to overcome Mustonen’s impressive court coverage in the third – the Finn taking it 11-7, and putting the world no. 5 2-1 down against a qualifier. A very sticky predicament.
As indeed Shorbagy admitted, claiming afterwards he was “nervous”, but glad he “found a way to win” against an opponent who played “such a fast game”
Fittingly, the fourth started tensely – firstly with Mustonen slipping and claiming a let for contact, which the Egyptian protested wasn’t there. “I don’t agree with you,” said the ref. “Of course you don’t,” El Shorbagy retorted, tongue-in-cheek. Then El Shorbagy had a let of his own – before going on to take the next four points in a row, and then take the game 11-6, thanks to some well-placed drives and drops.
Yet any suspicions the young Finn would pale in the fifth – content at his tournament run which has already seen him beat players about 30 and 40 places above him – proved unfounded, despite Shorbagy racing to a 5-0 lead.
Mustonen’s comeback began with some uncharacteristic errors from El Shorbagy, who mishit a drop, got out of position for a stroke against him, then had two mishits in a row – one, inexplicably, on a return. Then, from 7-4, El Shorbagy made a slight error on a drop and another on an ambitious cross-court nick attempt.
But he arrested the decline with a stunning drop volley, making it 8-7 to him. Mustonen won the next point – on the third attempt, with two contentious lets for Mustonen, one he had to review to get – with a stroke, after El Shorbagy was only able to dig a tight squeeze drop back out by his body.
Then it was El Shorbagy’s turn for a stroke, and he made it 10-8 with a great drop shot – sealing the win 11-9 on his second matchball.
El Shorbagy will now meet James Willstrop in today’s semi final, after the tall Yorkshireman beat Daryl Selby 11-7, 11-5, 11-7.
Despite very willing running, Selby struggled to find ways past Willstrop’s impressive reach – which he so often uses to control rallies from the centre of the court – and could not change his “big fat zero” in their head-to-head.
On the other side of the draw, Nick Matthew had to be at the top of his game to beat world no. 20 Stephen Coppinger.
The first two games, which Matthew took 11-6, 11-4, may look quite comfortable on paper, but were anything but on court – the Cape Town-based player forcing Matthew to play attacking squash and hit several spectacular smashed nicks to win rallies.
And causing Matthew to get frustrated over decisions – although the combative Yorkshireman as much as said that he courts this controversy to spur him on, when he told the referee off for admonishing a shouting crowd member.
“No, we [the players] enjoy the noise – come on, enjoy yourself tonight, guys,” he said. And he also mentioned how much he enjoyed the crowd “hooting and hollering” during his fiery first round encounter with Miguel Angel Rodriguez.
Coppinger played some brilliant squash to take the third 12-10, but could not quite stay at the world no. 2’s level in the fourth, which Matthew took 11-3.
Matthew now plays in the semi final Peter Barker, who beat Tom Richards, 8-11, 11-4, 11-5, 11-7.
Richards came out the blocks firing, with a vast array of clever shots, all on point – Barker himself admitted he thought he’d played quite well in the first, and that the Surrey player had just been a little better.
After that, though, Barker’s trademark line and length – allied to some smart front-court play, and retrieving that definitely put paid to any lingering injury doubts – told.

Canary Wharf Squash Classic: day two

In Sport on March 20, 2013 at 11:25 AM

Nick Matthew and Miguel Angel Rodriguez produced some – often literally – breathtaking squash in their first round match, with Matthew, by his own admission, “lucky” to win.

 

At 70 minutes, it wasn’t quite the marathon the two had in their only previous encounter at last year’s North American Open – which Matthew won in five after a gruelling 92 minutes.

 

But Rodriguez probably deserved at least a fifth here, as Matthew himself acknowledged in a very honest interview.

 

“He was faster than me, he was better than me,” he said.

“I’m not being funny; he played the best squash today and I’m lucky to go through.”

 

Rodriguez certainly started the brighter – his infamous retrieving ability forcing Matthew to hit increasingly low-percentage shots to win points, and inevitably leading to some mistakes.

 

But the 27-year-old Colombian’s speed belies impressive shot-making, shown here as he more than held his own in long rallies and finished some with clever drops and delayed drives, making it 6-2.

 

Matthew came back into from here, but was made fully aware of the lengths he must go when Rodriguez performed a spectacular full-length dive, with next to nothing breaking his fall and, frankly, little sense either, as Matthew was still in the better position and duly smashed away the dive. Great spectacle, though.

 

The remainder of the game featured frantic rallies and several contentious refereeing decisions; something Matthew alluded to afterwards, claiming that, due to some of the “incredible” balls Rodriguez gets back, no-one really knows if anything is a double bounce (which players are sort of expected to call on themselves) or a let.

 

Rodriguez edged the first 11-9, and the second game continued in much the same vein – neck-and-neck, following some astoundingly varied rallies which often saw the pair sprinting from one corner to another between balls.

 

At 8-8, Matthew received a back-court nick (think, a big net cord in tennis) – a crucial moment the three-time reigning champion noted when talking of his good fortune.

 

Certainly, even for the world no. 2, a 2-0 deficit would have been a tough ask to overturn against such a fiery opponent – but Matthew was probably being a little too honest.

 

Because there was little fortunate about the next two rallies which won him the game – a perfectly-constructed point which saw Rodriguez scrambling too much for even him to cope with, sending the ball flying out the back, and then smashing the ball into the nick after a reaction body-shot from Rodriguez.

 

And also because Matthew was not, at least in his opinion, getting the rub of the green from the ref – joking afterwards that, like the crowd, the ref certainly wanted to see a fifth game, and that the bloke who shouted “no let” in Matthew’s favour at one point should come down and ref after ten pints.

 

It was again nip-and-tuck in the third, right up until 7-6 to Matthew, where Rodriguez started to show the toll of his Herculean just a little, and Matthew’s marginally superior lengths told – Matthew taking the game 11-6.

 

The fight was far from over, however; the fourth showcasing a bewildering array of rallies which I could only begin to do justice to here.

 

One featured a cross-court drive that Matthew shaped up to take off the middle of the backwall. Rodriguez, eager to get any yard of position he could, took up a central position and did a squat jump, in anticipation of a possibly 100mph+ shot shooting just under him! (Indeed, as looked to have happened when he did so and Matthew played the shot in the first).

 

Sensibly, though, if a little aggrieved, Matthew called the let – protesting to the ref that if he hit one of those “his wife is going to be ringing me up”.

 

Rodriguez has a fascinating style, with movement unlike the long, loping styles most players employ.

 

With his bright orange shoes, it’s as if his feet are on fire; and together with his low centre of gravity, he often resembles a crab furiously scuttling across hot sand (that’s meant as a compliment).

 

This was seen to full effect in the fourth, as the game became even more stretched – Matthew winning it 11-9 after some great lobs in a typically long rally.

 

Elsewhere, Edinburgh’s Alan Clyne put up a spirited fight against no. 4 seed Peter Barker.

 

The world no. 27 would have come into the game with high hopes, given Barker’s injury worry from Kuwait, and his own impressive display in qualifying – having beaten Joel Hinds 3-0 (thanks in part to winning a game when Hinds had to exit for new shoelaces) then world no. 37 Jonathan Kemp 3-1.

 

But Barker’s injury held up, and he proved too strong, winning in what was, in the end, a fairly comfortable 11-7, 11-3, 11-7.

 

And Tom Richards and Steven Coppinger also progressed to the second round, with respective 3-0 victories over Mohd Ali Anwar Reda and Alistair Walker respectively.

Canary Wharf Squash Classic – day one

In Sport on March 19, 2013 at 11:03 AM

Daryl Selby and Simon Rosner produced the tie of day one at the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, as Selby triumphed in five games after a near hour-and-a-half of thrilling squash.

A gutsy performance, full of tireless running and amazing gets, saw him bounce back from 2-1 down to win 11-9, 4-11, 7-11, 11-8, 11-5.

The Essex player started well, taking a 9-3 lead with Rosner getting increasingly frustrated with Selby’s let calls, most of which – probably rightly – granted by the ref.

However, he squandered the lead courtesy of some strong play from the German and some errors of his own – but stemmed the tide at 9-9 with two tight volley drops to take the game.

Rosner raced to a 6-1 lead in the second, and two great drop shots brought him the gameball at 10-4, which he smashed into the nick – the join of the side-wall and floor – with aplomb, using all of his considerable 6’3 frame and then some with his jump.

A combination of great court coverage and clever use of the video review system – which turned and upheld some calls in Selby’s favour, much to Rosner’s chagrin – saw Selby take a 5-2 lead, but three mistakes in a row brought the scores level, and then Rosner got the better of some tight rallies to take the game 11-7.

Selby again started brightly, with an inch-perfect drop on the first point, and controlling the rallies after to make it 5-2 – but Rosner fought back.

A key point at 8-6 to Selby saw the Englishman call and receive a stroke – angering Rosner who thought, with some reason, he had cleared the ball enough for just a let (replay of the point).

So he reviewed, but the decision was upheld. His audacious response was a return smashed crosscourt into the nick on the next point.

Then it was Rosner’s turn to receive a borderline stroke, which Selby wasn’t pleased about but had no reviews left with which to challenge.

At 8-9 to Selby, the Essex player received a let which could have been a stroke, but won the replayed point, followed by a rallying cry – and then the gameball after that, followed by an even more almightly roar.

That, and more contentious let decisions in the fifth, took the wind out of Rosner’s sails just enough for Selby to edge in front, setting up the matchball with a perfectly-constructed rally of lobs of ultra-tight drives.

Fittingly, Selby won it with a long rally which ended in him calling a borderline let/stroke – the umpires awarding the stroke, which was reviewed but, after an anxious wait, upheld.

Elsewhere, qualifier Henrik Mustonen, world no. 53, beat world no. 17 Adrian Grant 3-11, 11-2, 11-6, 11-4, in the upset of the day.

Although it would not have come as too much of a surprise to those who saw the 22-year-old Finn dispatch both Kristian Frost Olesen, one rank below him, and then world no. 32 Gregoire Marche in qualifying.

Nor did his impressive athleticism comes as a surprise after the master of ceremonies, Alan Thatcher, stated that his training regime involves a gruelling series of sprints and runs followed by a lengthy swim in the lake in his “huge” back garden in his hometown of Hollola.

The first game went comfortably to Mustonen then the next to Grant.

Thereafter, though, especially in the second and fourth games, Mustonen outfoxed and out-manouevred Grant – ten years his senior and a mainstay in the top 20 since 2006, who would surely have hoped this near-homecoming (he lives in Dulwich) would have proved more of a swansong.

Enfield’s Adrian Waller, another qualifier, lost to world no. 5 Mohamed El Shorbagy, but not before he gave the rising Egyptian star a severe scare.

El Shorbagy took the first 11-7, but to do so was forced to bring out his most inventive shot-making and almost physics-defying court coverage, drawing several gasps of amazement from the crowd.

Waller could be forgiven for feeling discouraged for his efforts only earning seven points, but hecame out even stronger in the second, with the scores nip and tuck all the way up to the tie break (two clear points when the scores reach 10-10).

Here, he won the point with a sublime drop shot on the return off the back wall – El Shorbagy replying with typical insouciance, smashing the return cross-court into the nick.

Waller won the next on a stroke, and held his nerve again to win the replayed point when he was only awarded a let on point after – the wry grin El Shorbagy displayed when looking at Waller’s review suggesting even the Egyptian thought it was stroke.

He could not quite match the same effort in the next two games, though, which El Shorbagy took impressively 11-5 and 11-6.

It was a similar tale in wildcard Charles Sharpes’ match against world no.4 James Willstrop – though the Kingston player did not quite seem to pose the same threat to the number two seed.

Sharpes started positively, though the longer rallies invariably either went Willstrop’s way or ended in Sharpes calling a let (which didn’t go unnoticed to Willstrop, once jokingly asking if the 21-year-old wanted a let when frantically trying to hit the ball behind his own back).

Sharpes did play some brilliant squash to take the second 11-9. But in the next two games Willstrop, with his 6’4 frame and impressive reach, largely controlled the game from the T, often appearing that he had Sharpes on a string, especially when bringing out glimpses of his now-infamous double-fake shot from the recent North American Open.

Quizzed on this afterwards, he said: “I keep trying to do it, which is not sensible really.

“Its popularity has been quite unbelievable. At first I did not really know what the fuss was about, but now I do, and that I must promote it to try to make a difference and help get squash into the Olympics.”

Joel Durston

Matthew and Willstrop set to lock horns at Canary Wharf

In Sport on March 12, 2013 at 9:22 PM

Fierce rivals Nick Matthew and James Willstrop will lock horns again from next Monday at the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

The two Yorkshiremen – who have been sharing the spoils at the top of squash for about a decade, and not always entirely harmoniously – go into this PSA International 50 event at the East Wintergarden venue with three titles apiece.

Top seed and World No. 2 Matthew – who reached the final of the North American Open just over a week ago – will be looking for his fourth title on the trot, having beaten Willstrop 11-7, 11-8, 11-9 in last year’s final.

He faces a tough tie in the first round in the form of Miguel Angel Rodriguez – the 27-year-old Colombian renowned for his amazing court coverage and spectacular full-length dives, and who took Matthew to a marathon five games in the first round of last year’s North American Open.

If he can overcome Rodriguez’s lightning speed, Matthew, 32, will face South African Steve Coppinger or Alister Walker, who decided a couple of years ago to represent his country of birth, Botswana, after a fallout with England Squash in late 2010.

Then fourth seed Peter Barker lies in wait in Thursday’s semi final – if, that is, the ties go as the seeding forecasts and Barker beats a qualifier and then World No. 12 Tom Richards, also playing a qualifier in the first round.

On the other side of the 16-man draw, James Willstrop, 29, begins his tournament against wildcard Englishman Charles Sharpes – and, presuming he prevails, faces the winner of what promises to be a close encounter between world numbers 15 and 16, Harlow-born Daryl Selby and German Simon Rosner.

Aiming to upset the home favourites will be rising star Mohamed El Shorbagy, the 22-year-old Egyptian now resident in Bristol, having earned a scholarship to train under the tutelage of squash great Jonah Barrington at the prestigious Millfield School, and then a scholarship at UWE – where he studies business.

In the first round, El Shorbagy faces a qualifier from this weekend’s Qualifying at the Wimbledon Racquets and Fitness Club, and then the winner of the opening game of the tournament – another qualifier against Adrian Grant, the World No. 17 making the short hop over the river from his Greenwich home.

If El Shorbagy and Willstrop continue their impressive form, they will then face each other on Thursday in a mouth-watering repeat of both last year’s semi-final – which Willstrop won 3-1 – and December’s semi-final at the World Championship in Qatar – in which El Shorbagy triumphed 11-8 in the fifth after a gruelling 112 minutes. (Consider that rough equivalent to 7-5 in the fifth set of a five-hour tennis match.)

This encounter would, given Matthew’s probable progression, set up one of two enthralling prospects for Friday night’s final; the reigning master against the pretender to the throne – Matthew v El Shorbagy – or the Real/Barca, Federer/Nadal, Frazier/Ali of squash – Matthew v Willstrop.

Whatever the outcome, one thing’s (pretty much) for certain; the spectacular arched glass East Wintergarden venue on the banks of the Thames will provide a fittingly spectacular showcase for some world-class squash.

And hopefully the tournament will give a much-deserved boost to squash’s profile, as it strives for inclusion into the Olympic family from 2020 (having recently gained endorsement from a certain Mr Federer, no less)…

Joel Durston