Monday, 30 July 2012

Boyling Up Nicely

Danny Boyle, take a bow.

Personally I really enjoyed the multicultural rubbish. I know it’s difficult for a rabid Tory to embrace the fact that there is more than one shade of skin, belief, hairstyle, but the rest of us are pretty content with it.

It was great to see the slowly bloating power-brokers of this democracy of ours have to witness a ceremony peppered with gentle to blatant subversion. To get ‘God Save The Queen’ from the Sex Pistols referenced in the same show in which the Woman herself feigned a skydive was truly fantastic and spoke volumes for the old parasite. If she, and they, carry on like this then hellfire I might even let them carry on when the country is mine (in a limited comical Scandinavian mode of course).

I wasn’t too excited at the beginning when it all looked a bit Teletubbies and the livestock seemed bound to ruin everything. But the clambering factory towers, the founding of the Olympic ring, Kenneth Branagh proving that he can do more than be a pseudo-Swedish gloom-merchant, and them drummers thumping away throughout took the breath away.

I even liked that contemporary dance bit and that’s usually the moment when the wife stands in front of the telly in a protective manner and says ‘Put the mallet down, Derek, that flat-screen cost £599!’ (And I reply ‘If you’d have let us go to London last August I could’ve got one for free.’)

And of course that bit at the end, where Redgrave handed the torch on to seven young stars of the future to light that gorgeous Olympic pyre was right up there.

But to me the star of the show was Mr. Bean. I jest. The star of the show was the NHS. That’s right, world, we look after the poor and sick in this country – or at least that’s the principle – and most of us, by and large the ones who need it, are proud as punch with that. Rawnsley, Cameron, you tinker with it at your peril.

The only tedium was the athletes parading round, really. I know it’s an important part, but can’t they stick em all on golf-carts and whizz em round quicker? I tried to alleviate the tedium by playing ‘guess the next country’ only to be foiled by foolishly overlooking such great nation states as Kiribati and some ickle group of islets south of Madagascar.

The BBC commentary was full of insights though: New Zealand have won the most medals per capita; Czech athletes have a sense of humour; and Trevor Nelson knows less than fuck-all.

The Beeb’s coverage so far has been nothing short of wall-to-wall but there are cracks around the edges as ever. Why Gary Lineker has to sit there gurning away at us with the carbohydrate-laden crumbs of prawn-cocktail crinkle-cuts falling from his overpaid lips is beyond me. The lasses – Logan, Balding, Irvine, Barker – make Lineker look like some adopted child on a work experience course.

But the thing that really bugs me is that you get Sir Steve Redgrave asking rowers fatuous questions. Why? Surely if you’ve won five bloody gold medals you’ll already know the answer. It’d be like getting Eric Sykes to ask Russell Howard where he gets all his funny ideas from. (Here ‘funny’ is used in the lightest possible sense).

Whereas I watched Gabby Logan chatting to the campest couch in Olympic history last night as Ian Thorpe and Carl Lewis fielded her questions. And very engaging they were. Thorpe is a joy. All raised eyebrows and nudges and winks but a great deal of passion and knowledge too. Carl Lewis wore a check cap, as if to prove his American tourist credentials, but they were both so fired up by being there you couldn’t help but be swept up by it.

Indeed, such was the surge of love and national pride following Boyle’s (and thousands upon thousands of others) magnificent efforts, that we all felt certain that medals would flow like so many chocolate coins from a Christmas stocking. And they didn’t.

The fact that no one helped the British cyclists in the road race should be the source of a kind of back-handed pride. British cyclists are now held in the same sort of loathing as Manchester United, or the New York Yankees. It was an ABGB race.

And of course the Olympics isn’t really about us lot, as the the ludicrous number of empty seats will testify. Those of us who entered the super-expensive Olympic lotto only to find we couldn’t even get a pass for a bit of handball are grinding our teeth down to pulp every time another terrace appears on screen populated by the equivalent of the indigenous penguin population of the Isle of Man.

If you asked Danny Boyle he’d probably get the nursing staff of the NHS to bag the seats and I wouldn’t be opposed to that.

You could dwell too long on the opportunistic no-show corporate liggers that litter the Games (and have done since 1988), but the Olympics is about those people who take a bleeding age to do one lap of the track in the opening ceremony. Like the Korean archery lass who needed a nine to win gold and pinged it in. Or that 16-year-old Chinese lass who appeared to have borrowed an outboard motor for the last 50 metres of the 400 metres individual medley. Or our own Beth Tweddle bouncing around between the asymmetric bars like a graceful but agitated squirrel. Marvellous.

Two days in and it’s just splendid. Anything that makes me cheer Craig Bellamy is bordering on the miraculous.
And there’s one thing I’ve noticed that has made an ordinary mortal like meself feel inadequate it’s this: male gymnasts – you know, the incredibly muscled, superstrong blokes who don’t need two planks of wood and a box of nails to make themselves into a dangling crucifix shape – well, before they do the vault they run like right jessies. You just watch em.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Cry Like You Meant It

So Great Britain returns to its default settings. We can embrace a loser, indeed we can raise him to the status of icon, if only he cries. Not for us the relentless domination of a Woods or a Federer or the Spanish football team. Don’t get us wrong, they’re admirable in their own way. But you don’t see them cry very often. All right they DO cry, but only cos they’re so brilliant. And they don’t mean it, do they?

Andy Murray meant every tear. What courage he showed in trying to speak when he was choking on a bit of personal grief. Yes, until yesterday he was a boring, grim-faced bloke with a giraffe’s neck and an Adam’s Apple that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Finn McCool. His press conferences were about as exciting as a Cliff Richard concert – thank God for that roof, eh? – and he couldn’t tell a joke for toffee.

Indeed the lad who hid under a desk during the primary school massacre at Dunblane seemed to have forgotten how to smile! I mean, come on! He earns a fortune, his girlfriend’s got hair to die for and his entourage isn’t much smaller than Madonna’s. I mean, cheer up son!

But that speech. Now we know who Andy is! Cos he got upset, cos he keeps getting beat by one of three of the best players ever to hold a tennis racquet. Cos if only he had been around when the comparative lightweights like Ivanisevic and Hewitt were winning Wimbledon, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Well I’ve never got why Murray has to justify himself in the hearts of the British people. It’s bloody ridiculous, frankly. I’ve always liked the fact that he’s reserved at press conferences, that he doesn’t let down his guard – and more than that I like the fact that he’s a brilliant tennis player.

I don’t mind that he rants and raves on court, unless he puts himself off by doing it. I’d be happy if he never shed a tear on a tennis court and won three Grand Slams. You get the impression now that the press and the public wouldn’t mind if he carried the Henman baton and passed it on to the next generation of gallant losers.

As Federer prepared to serve for the match, cries of ‘Murray, Murray’ echoed around Centre Court. Wonderful, unprompted, but all in support of the inevitable loser rather than the cast-iron winner. Much like the widespread commendations for Hodgson’s grim Euro 2012 campaign, give a man a ‘plucky and emotional’ tag and this country will embrace you like no other.

Well I’m telling you, Mo Farah, I’m telling you, Jessica Ennis, I’m telling you Ben Ainslie, Rebecca Adlington, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy and the rest of you, you’ll get nowt off me for coming second. Then again you know that or you wouldn’t have won so much already.

Not that I’m having a pop at Murray. There are those who claim he missed his chances, he got passive, he didn’t impose himself like he should. Well maybe, but only a little bit. For here’s the other thing. I know we’re used to Roger Federer by now, but to make the whole match about Britain’s relationship with its best tennis player for 70 years (and word is that no one much cared for that victorious bighead Fred Perry either), seems to me to be the height of neglect.

Federer was bloody marvellous. There is something close to divine about the way he plays the game. Opponents, even quick ones like Murray, seem to be huffing and puffing and straining every sinew as they go about the court; Federer doesn’t even glide so much as teleport himself across the court.

The two drop-volleys at the end of the second set defied description, so beautiful were they, but I’ll do my best: they were the crossed ‘t’s’ and dotted ‘i’s’at the end of a couple of sentences written by a great calligrapher. Murray, a man who is often described as ‘having all the shots’ learnt a few more at the feet of the master.

I mean yes sometimes the fact that it all looks so effortless can get a tad irritating. And the RF brand of clothing is one of the naffest that’s ever adorned a sporting competition. I’ve never seen anyone other than Fed and his entourage actually wear the damn stuff, probably cos your average Joe realises it looks really crap and a bit fey.

But there are times when you reckon the Swiss could win a 28-stroke rally while setting out a table for a spot of afternoon tea. He is the greatest tennis player there’s ever been. There’s no shame in getting beaten by him. There’s even less shame in crying when you talk to the public after losing to him. It’s just a bit of a shame that we needy people seem to require such emotional outbursts before we can truly feel we like a person.

I mean our postman delivered our mail for 25 years but I never felt I truly knew him til I found him slumped on the pavement having broken his ankle. He never misposted one of my letters in all that time but I just couldn’t warm to him as a man.

I never much cared for my brother-in-law either. He was a tight-lipped right-wing bastard with a locktight wallet. Until one day, his cat died and you could not hold him up such was his grief.

And when John Terry burst into tears after he missed that penalty in Moscow – well, that’s when I truly realised that I’ll never warm to that bloke in a million bloody years.

So, in short, it doesn’t matter how good you are at your job – if you’re a sportsperson, even a brilliant, committed, hard-working one like Andy Murray – make sure you have a wobbly emotional moment in public and we’ll all love you. Forever.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Reign of Spain

Okay, maybe they're not that boring, Spain.

They were, though - until the final. Even Arsene Wenger thought that all that possession with no end-product was pointless and negative, which is a bit like Katie Price calling Jodie Marsh 'a bit trashy'.

Maybe there were mitigating circumstances. Italy looked shagged out. They had one day less to prepare and they'd spent 120 minutes smacking footballs against Scott Parker just a week ago which could tire anyone out. (I reckon if they remake The Ipcress File Scottie should be there in the Michael Caine role, clutching that rusty nail into his palm to bloke out the pain.)

Pirlo couldn't wield much of an influence, which shouldn't detract from his awesome performance in the 'quarter-back' role. I remember Becks trying that position against Northern Ireland once. It was about as successful as a landing party of haddock soldiers.
Talking of Becks, if we must - well done Pearcey for leaving him out. Not only does he not really qualify on footballing grounds (they do exist and are not some political get-out-of-jail-free card for people who don't want the 'best' two centre-halves in the country punching each other out on the training pitch), but Pearce has tacitly admitted that the Olympic football tournament is a meaningless sideshow that not even a celebrity auditonee for Pirates of the Caribbean - how else do you explain the ludicrous beard? - could save.

Spain were also helped by Italians collapsing like they were two Allen keys short of a flat-pack bookcase. But, as Alan Shearer might put it, 'let's take nothing away from the Spaniards, they was top-drawer.'

Shearer's presence on the pundits' panel still bewilders, particularly when he was alongside the truly articulate Vialli and Klinsmann. I mean if you can't string together a meaningful sentence in your own language then what's the point?

But maybe, just maybe, all this flak served to needle Spain into a more progressive style because, fook me, they were good in the final. Not the best team we've ever seen but probably - alongside 1970's Brazil - the best national team.

Of course much will always be made of the absence of a proper centre-forward. An English translation of this would be someone who's 'good in the air and has a decent touch for a big lad' - or, to put it more straightforwardly, Andy Carroll.

But Del Bosque has worked out that keeping the ball is a good way to stop the opposition, and a Carroll or a Gomez, or in this tournament a Rooney, are a good way of guaranteeing that the oppostion get it back.

But on Sunday the flair players came to town. Italy's flat-back four was tailor-made for dashing little darts in behind them from the likes of Fabregas, Silva and Jordi Alba and the big noble lunks that held fast for Prandelli thus far were made to look like giant blue cones on a training pitch.

Certainly Spain's interchanges of pass were slicker than ever. Iniesta, Barca's friendly ghost and Xavi, part midfield maestro and part Pokemon character, set the tone. Busquets and Alonso stuck a stud in when necessary. Ramos and Pique were sturdy at the back, and Balotelli was pretty anonymous (if you can be anonymous when someone appears to have scored a scale model of the Andes down the centre of your forehead).

Ramos even found time to float forward and treat us to one of his trademark penalty-box tumbles. My God that man's a knob, which unfortunately doesn't prevent him from being a good footballer.

Torres was used as a tormentor of tired legs, and in Casillas they had the best keeper in the tournament, just about.

The defensive strategy of most of Spain's opponents seemed to be to let Arbeloa have as much of the ball as possible. Thank God they didn't have a right-footed Jordi Alba or we could have all spent the summer at home under British umbrellas.

Del Bosque deserves enormous credit of course for continuing to oversee a strong team ethic from players who use El Classicos to test out the relative strengths of (a) each other's shinpads and (b) the ability to fall over convincingly.

So yes, Spain fully deserved the title. They were all the things they'd not really been for the rest of the tournament.

All of which can't allay my disappointment for Germany who appear to be, dare I say it, squandering the talent of a golden generation. [Pause for small helpless chuckle].

All in all, it's been a very enjoyable tournament. Why they want to inflate this neat high-standard three weeks of football into a flabby doddering test of stamina in four years time is beyond me. Oh, apart from pure naked greed, of course. Perhaps Bob Diamond's putting together the next one.

Given Spain's ridiculous 4-6-0 formation  it's difficult for a Teesside brought up on a 4-4-2 to work out what the team of the tournament should be. You could do worse than pick Casillas and ten tiny Spaniards.

But here's mine anyway:

Casillas: Lahm, Pastapopolopodopolous (summat like that), Pique, Jordi Alba; Pirlo, Khedira; Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta; Balotelli.

Not sure what formation that is so I've put del Bosque in charge. He'll sort it out for us.

In the meantime let's watch Andy Murray's opponents get their match completed so that the poor lamb is knackered before his quarter-final. home advantage should mean something, shouldn't it? Gawd help us!