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Sport: The Australian Disease -

Tony Popovic
Photo: Wikipedia

Western Sydney’s new football club is an experiment the FFA may live to regret.

The new season is due to start in October and yet the club has no players, no colours, no name and no ground.

There are only two things it does have – an experienced executive chairman in former Central Coast Mariners boss Lyall Gorman and a rookie coach in Tony Popovic.

It would be impossible to find someone with better credentials than Gorman. He helped found the Mariners and then led the club in its formative years, before moving on to a two-year stint as head of the A-League. If he can’t run western Sydney properly, nobody can.

But everything that Gorman is, Popovic isn’t. He’s never been a head coach and never worked with a start-up club. And despite his inexperience, he’s been handed a four-year contract.

Admittedly, Popovic has served a good apprenticeship, spending three years as an assistant at Sydney FC and another year as an assistant at Crystal Palace. He’s given himself every chance of succeeding in his new job.

Yet one can’t help but feel the Popovic appointment was more about PR than vision. He said all the right things at his first press conference, highlighting his western Sydney background and promising to play attractive football. The punters have already lapped it up.

However, the problem with PR stunts is that although they look like master-strokes in the short term, they can turn out to be regressive steps in the long term.

Take the appointment of Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool. After the unpopular Roy Hodgson was shown the door, the new American owners, Fenway Sports Group, realised it would be a brilliant piece of PR to replace him with the legendary “King” Kenny. It allowed Fenway’s bigwigs, John W. Henry and Tom Werner, to simultaneously prove their commitment to Liverpool’s heritage and distance themselves from the hated Yanks who had previously owned the club, George Gillett and Tom Hicks.

Dalglish has just been sacked after 16 months in the job, having performed even more dismally than Hodgson. For all his experience he had been out of the game for too long. Liverpool are now in a worse position than before Dalglish’s appointment. Not only did they let him spend more than £100 million on poorly performing players, they are faced with paying out the final two years of his contract. The sacking was a belated admission by Henry and Werner that all the good vibes in the world don’t outweigh dropped points and red ink.

That is something for western Sydney to think about as Popovic begins his four-year contract. The local hero will inspire more early excitement among prospective fans than did dour Scotsman Ian Ferguson when he became the first manager of the now defunct North Queensland Fury.

But consider Popovic’s dilemma. He has to quickly recruit about 20 good local players, even though almost all the best ones are already contracted to rival clubs. He must also quickly find a handful of exceptional foreigners. How much scouting experience does Popovic have? How well does he know Australia’s state leagues? How well does he know the vast world of international football that contains as many Ubay Luzardos and Steve McMahon Jrs as it does Thomas Broiches and Carlos Hernandezes?

Popovic must then take this hastily assembled bunch and teach them to play intelligent, attractive and successful football in a very short time. Even a master coach like Guus Hiddink would struggle under those conditions. So what chance does Popovic have?

Consider then the plausible scenario of western Sydney at or near the bottom of the table. Pressure would be heaped on the rookie coach. Fans would complain, crowds would fall, players would get restless. Would Popovic fall into the same trap as thousands of better men by playing ‘result football’? Would the board get an itchy trigger finger and decide to pay out his contract as Melbourne Victory did 14 games into Mehmet Durakovic’s coaching career?

The Popovic appointment is not so much the cause of western Sydney’s problem as its symptom. This was a club that was suddenly dreamed up as a replacement for Gold Coast United so the FFA could shop around a 10-team competition as it negotiates a new television deal.

The Gold Coast debacle proved that clubs can’t succeed unless they’re embedded in their communities. That takes time. Melbourne Heart had over a year to prepare and are still fighting to build a base. Popovic is the coach you appoint when you’re doing everything on the run and are looking for a short-term fix to your long-term problem.

Success for western Sydney is still possible, but it would be more likely if the club had another year to prepare and was led by an experienced coach. The New Zealand Knights, North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United are painful reminders of what happens when the wrong decisions are made.

Western Sydney is not the shrewd piece of planning the FFA would have punters believe but a last-minute leap of faith. It is one the governing body and fans may live to regret.

The Olympics minus the bad bits

March 24th 2012 05:51
Usain Bolt
Photo: Erik van Leeuwen,

How much better would the Olympics be if we knew no one was cheating?

A shrewd idea to help clean up the Olympics has been proposed by an economics lecturer at La Trobe University. But more on that later.

Anybody who loves sport cannot fail to be stirred by the Olympics. To love sport is to be seduced by its drama and beauty – and the Olympics epitomises both.

It is extraordinary theatre to watch the best of the best. Their years of sacrifice end in remarkable wins, heartbreaking losses, personal bests and inexplicable failures. We feel their joy and pain because we understand something of what they have endured to make it that far.

That is why we are moved when an athlete produces a performance that appears to be superhuman. It is not hyperbole to say that this is the best of the best of the best. There are seven billion people in the world, but here is one who has combined God-given talent with years of training to stand above us all. Those who love sport understand the significance of such achievements and are duly moved.

Hundreds of millions of people would still be moved by the memory of one historic moment from Beijing 2008.

It was not the moment Usain Bolt left the blocks or drew level with his rivals or nudged ahead of them. It was what came next – a display of such astonishing acceleration that he was able to leave the world’s greatest sprinters in his wake and finish in a world record 9.69 seconds, despite slowing down near the end.

It was dramatic. It was beautiful. We felt privileged to watch it.

But an unpleasant feeling would have gnawed inside most of us. It was dramatic, it was beautiful – but was it legal? Could anybody perform at such stratospheric levels and remain within the rules? And what about when he further lowered the record to 9.58 seconds a year later?

We were moved by Carl Lewis’ remarkable feats. He turned out to be a drug cheat. We were moved by Marion Jones’ remarkable feats. She turned out to be a drug cheat.

Most viewers would have tried to block out such uncomfortable thoughts as they watched Bolt record his historic win, but few would have succeeded.

That is why all reasonable steps must be taken to clean up the Olympics. Cheating can never be eliminated, but if fewer athletes do it and a higher percentage of those who do are caught, we will all feel better about the Olympics and performances like Bolt’s.

Enter Liam Lenten from La Trobe University. He has an economics solution to a sporting problem.

He told The Australian that athletes should put a percentage of their prizemoney and endorsements into superannuation-type funds. The clean ones would get access to their fund when they retired; the cheats would not. It would make all athletes think twice about cheating, especially those who decided to turn to drugs late in their careers when they had relatively little to lose from a positive test.

Here’s another suggestion: any Australian athlete caught doping should have to pay back every cent of government assistance they had ever received. Our taxes are meant to be subsidising their training, not their injecting.

Anybody wondering how much more we might enjoy the Olympics if we regarded it less cynically should think about Makybe Diva and Black Caviar.

Racing has always had its share of ‘colourful identities’, but despite the Fine Cotton scandal and countless other acts of corruption, few think dark thoughts when they witness extraordinary feats on the racetrack.

Watching Makybe Diva win her third consecutive Melbourne Cup had all the drama and beauty that we love about the Olympics. Only a remarkable athlete could have carried so much weight and still found a way to win such a competitive race. It was a privilege to watch.

The same can be said of Black Caviar and her 19-race winning streak. The horse gallops along unremarkably in the pack, until, with 200 or 300 metres to go, she unleashes that once-in-a-generation display of acceleration and speed. It is a privilege to watch such a superlative athlete.

Makybe Diva and Black Caviar have given us only drama and beauty. We haven’t wondered ‘what if’. We have just watched, admired and felt privileged.

How much better would the Olympics be if we knew no one was cheating?

Little Aussie battler

January 29th 2012 14:41
Lleyton Hewitt
Photo: Charlie Whelton

Hail Novak Djokovic, by all means. But hail Lleyton Hewitt while you’re at it.

One of the things that made the 2012 Australian Open fascinating was how thoroughly it exposed Hewitt. All aspects of his personality and ability were on full display.

No longer did anyone have to play the detective to work this complex character out – searching for clues from one tournament and combining it with evidence from another to piece together the Hewitt puzzle.

Different Hewitts had been revealed over the years – Hewitt the winner, Hewitt the loser, Hewitt the strong, Hewitt the weak, Hewitt the hero, Hewitt the villain.

This time, with everything exposed, a full and accurate assessment of Hewitt could be made.

What it showed was that the positives far outweighed the negatives.

First, to his personality. Hewitt haters would recoil at the thought, but the man is no monster. Accusations of racism in that famous US Open match against James Blake were always fanciful. Still, there have been many times in his career in which he has crossed the line from fierce competitor to bad sport. Such ugly incidents, while not excusable, were easily explained as the actions of someone desperate to win.

That is a part of Hewitt, but only a small part. Those who know him have often remarked on how calm and contemplative he becomes when off the court. He showed that once his Australian Open ended with a fourth-round loss to Djokovic. Immediately after, he praised his conqueror – something Hewitt haters might be surprised to learn he has made a habit of throughout his career. In the days following, he leant a friendly and astute presence to the Channel Seven commentary box, again praising Djokovic, while also lauding other stars, like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who had gotten the better of him over the years.

The real way to judge a tennis player, though, is by his tennis. What Hewitt has been striving all these years to win are tournaments, not sainthood. How convenient, then, that this year’s Australian Open should have been a microcosm of his career. He played good tennis, he played bad tennis, he overcame injury, he launched fightbacks, he had stirring wins and, ultimately, he lost.

What all the ups and downs confirmed is that Hewitt has only ever been a player of middling talent. That might sound like an insult, but it is actually the greatest compliment he could be paid. Middling talents don’t win grand slams. But he has somehow won two.

Hewitt’s golden run at the turn of the century owed much to good timing – Sampras and Agassi were on the way out and Federer and Nadal had yet to emerge. He was also blessed with the robustness of youth; the continuous injuries that have devastated the second half of his career only arrived after his last grand slam final, the 2005 Australian Open loss to Marat Safin.

Another reason for Hewitt’s success was his skill at working the percentages. He didn’t so much outplay his opponents as outlast them. Keep getting the ball back and eventually the other bloke will make a mistake.

But that approach no longer works. Back then, he was fast enough and determined enough to seemingly chase down every ball, which helped conceal the fact he had a weak serve, a non-existent net game and only above average ground strokes. These days, the mind is willing but the flesh is weak. He can no longer chase all those balls down and his shots seem to be landing further and further inside the service line with every passing year.

The other problem is that his rivals worked him out long ago. They now understand he was the ultimate poker player – all bluff and no cards. Fearful of getting into long rallies with him – because he always seemed to have the skill to win them – they would force shots and lose the point. Eventually, though, it dawned on the rest of the tour that he was winning those rallies through tenacity, not skill. Why fear a player with a non-existent net game and only above average ground strokes? With that realisation, the other players called his bluff. They started bludgeoning shot after shot at him and Hewitt, his fitness and reflexes fading, found it increasingly difficult to get them back.

And so to this year’s Australian Open. Anyone else with Hewitt’s characteristics would have lost in the first round. His ranking was 181. His body was fragile. He had only played four lead-in matches for three losses and a win over China’s Wu Di.

He started with a creditable four-set win over Cedrik-Marcel Stebe. In the second round, he had come from behind to lead Andy Roddick two sets to one when the world number 16 retired. Then came a tough four-set win over rising star Milos Raonic.

That set up his showdown with Djokovic. The Serb blitzed the first two sets and strolled to a 3-0 lead in the first – just what one would expect from a match between someone filled with talent and another person only sprinkled with it.

The stage had been set for one hour of quintessential Hewitt.

He held serve to make it 1-3. A hard-earned break made it 2-3. At 4-4, he summoned all his willpower to overpower Djokovic – not with brilliance, but determination – and somehow break for a 5-4 lead. Serving for the set, he was placed under almighty pressure, before he struggled over the line. Nobody could explain it, but the set was his.

By the time it became 1-1 in the fourth, Hewitt was playing his best tennis in years. He was hitting the ball hard and deep and pushing Djokovic around the court. He had willed himself to this position. A break point arrived. For a fleeting moment, a win over the brilliant Serb seemed possible. Viewers all across Australia would have thought another improbable Hewitt fightback had begun.

But reality hit. Djokovic held serve. He then broke Hewitt. The Australian fought desperately to get back into the match – of course he did – but he couldn’t. He didn’t lack heart; he just lacked talent.

Hewitt had had no right to progress to the fourth round or steal a set off Djokovic – just as he had had no right to win the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon in 2002, or fight his way to that Australian Open final in 2005.

If the 2012 Australian Open turns out to be the last time we see Hewitt play on local soil, we can say he has left us with fond memories. This was a player who was as inspirational in victory as he was in defeat. He never had the talent of a champion – but for a few glorious years, through sheer self-belief, he conned the tennis world into thinking he was one.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

December 18th 2011 04:35
Grand final win over Central Coast
Brisbane Roar's superior system led them to a win over the Central Coast Mariners in last season's grand final. Photo: Geoff Auckland.

Now is not the time to panic for the Brisbane Roar

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High-5ives not the answer

October 19th 2011 09:01
Australia v Bangladesh
Credit: Jen mainly in Bangladesh

Welcome to the world of 5ives
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Get Kewell!

August 19th 2011 08:19
Harry Kewell
Will Harry Kewell play in the A-League or won’t he?

Australian football desperately needs the answer to be yes – which is why the FFA needs to do everything in its power to make it happen

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Photo: Vagawi

The latest salary cap scandal to hit Australian sport is a reminder of the value of salary caps and the importance of enforcing them

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Michael Clarke
(Photo courtesy of Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)

This is an important time in Australian cricket

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Ian Thorpe
Can the sequel ever be as good as the original?

Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim, Libby Trickett and Geoff Huegill will soon find out

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Back to the future for Sydney FC

December 29th 2010 13:49
Sydney FC football club
Is Vitezslav Lavicka the new John Kosmina?

It seems an appropriate question given how much the Sydney FC of season six resembles the Sydney FC of season four – and how little the Sydney FC of season five

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