Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Zurich's time to shine

It truly has been a golden 24 hours for Zurich's sporting teams, and indeed Swiss sport. In the last two days, ZSC Lions beat the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL to lift the Victoria Cup and tonight, FC Zurich did the unthinkable and beat Italian giants AC Milan in the Champions League group stage.
ZSC earned the right to play in the Victoria Cup after lifting the inaugral Champions Hockey League and took their chance with a superb 2-1 victory against Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks while FCZ reached the group stages after winning the Swiss Super League last season. Switzerland have a great tradition in winter sports and Roger Federer has put Switzerland on the world sporting map and FC Basel have also performed well on the European stage. In 2002/03 they shocked Europe by reaching the second stage of the Champions League, knocking out Liverpool in the process before eventually falling short. Yet despite these successes, this has to be the most succesful week in Swiss team sport.

Switzerland remain competitive in hockey and football on the international stage with both of their teams competitive in World and European championships but surely one cannot recall its club teams performing so well. The NLA, Switzerlands premier hockey competition ranks among one of the best in Europe but is overshadowed by the Swedish, Finnish and Czech leagues as well as the NHL and Russia's KHL. The Swiss Super League is also dwarfed by neighbouring countries with regards to football.

The NLA has produced the European Champions, ZSC Lions and is a thoroughly engaging tournament. The atmosphere at matches is awesome while tickets (certainly at EV Zug) are affordable. This means games are well attended by teenagers whereas trips to Old Trafford and the like are often out of reach of many in England. Hockey of course is much more popular in Switzerland than in Britain, with the Elite League being its equivalent.

The Swiss Super League is very different to football in England. The stadia have places to stand and while the standard of grounds are improving,  the charm that these venues have will hopefully not decrease. On the occasions I have been to the Hardturn to see Grasshoppers Zurich play a European tie, the fans have been vocal and it was refreshing to see fans of both clubs in the same stand, even if the Leeds fans who perhaps should not have been there weren't as polite as their Swiss hosts.

Sport in Switzerland is different, yet that does not mean it is necessarily inferior. Sure, watching the likes of FC Luzern or FC Zurich may not be as impressive as Manchester United or Chelsea, but the Swiss hockey and football leagues offer something equally entertaining and after this week's successes, they deserve their moment in the spotlight.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

A Bridge too Favre?

NFL: Minnesota Vikings
The NFL kicks off today and most teams have a sense of optimism going into the 2009 season. New England will be hoping the return of Quarterback Tom Brady can help them return to the play-offs while the New York Jets and the hapless Detroit Lions will want their rookie QBs Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford to make an impact. The Minnesota Vikings however will be hoping a rather older Quarterback will propell them into the post-season. Brett Favre has come out of retirement for a second time for one last chance at Superbowl glory. It's a win-win situation for Favre, but what effect will it have on the Vikings?

Minnesota were one of the favourites for the NFC Championship before Favre signed with a super offence of which the key weapon is undoubtedly Running Back Adrian Peterson. The Vikings however were unconvinced by their Quarterback options, especially Tavaris Jackson who remains with the team. Minnesota had wanted Favre last season, but were thwarted in their attempts by the Green Bay Packers who held on to Favre's registration and were unwilling to trade him to a division rival. After one, ultimately fruitless, year with the New York Jets, Favre who was suffering from a bicep injury called time on his illustrious career. The Jets moved on by drafting Mark Sanchez in the 2009 draft and released Favre who was now able to join any NFL team. After yet another protracted saga Favre joined the Minnesota Vikings.

When Favre returned prematurely from retirement in July 2008, many observers and fans felt that a return to the NFL would tarnish his legacy with the Green Bay Packers after it became clear that that organisation did not want him and had moved on with Aaron Rodgers leading the Packers' offence. Favre was eventually traded to the Jets and after a decent start, his injury problems meant that he went out with a whimper, leading the league in interceptions and failing to lead the Jets to the play-offs. During the first half of that season Favre proved why he was one of the best Quarterbacks of all time and still remains a decent player. Many feel that the Vikings are taking a risk with Favre, but why? Ultimately the Vikings are a better team with Favre and he enhances a team that looks an NFC Championship contender. As for Favre and his legacy, he has a real chance to add to his sole Superbowl victory having thrown an interception with his last play for Green Bay in the NFC Championship game two seasons ago.

As a Packers fan, I'm delighted to see Favre back in the NFL. The man is a legend of the game, one of the greatest Quarterbacks of all time and was the face of the Packers franchise for a decade and a half. He'll be a force to reckon with in the NFC North, which has three genuine contenders this year, especially with Chicago acquiring Jay Cutler in the off-season. Having said that, right now I wouldn't trade Aaron Rodgers for any other QB in the league and feel that Packer's management made the right decision in the summer of 2008 by sticking with him and allowing him to progress as a player. Last season was tough, but there were glimpses of why Rodgers can become one of the league's elite QBs this season. Favre is back though, and with him, Minnesota can go all the way.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Redeem Team


It was the worst day I have ever experienced as a fan of football, possibly even as a fan of sport. As the rain poured down at Wembley and on England's Euro 2008 qualifying ambitions, Croatia celebrated in the cold November night. England had many chances to qualify for that tournament, the most harrowing being the game against Russia in Moscow where England were a whisker away from qualifying before capitulating to the team that would ultimately take their place at Europe's showpiece. It was a truly terrible qualifying campaign and even defeat in Moscow wasn't the end as Israel beat Russia to ensure that England's fate remained in their own hands. England didn't deserve a place at that tournament, poor performances coupled with disappointing results against the likes of Macedonia and Andorra ensured that a team more used to spectacular, gallant failure endured a painful, pathetic end to a torrid attempt to qualify.

Nearly two years on from those painful memories, England, now under the stewardship of Fabio Capello, are a different team. Qualifying has seemingly been a breeze for the Three Lions and are now just one victory away from the World Cup finals in South Africa next year. A victory against Croatia on wednesday would surely banish any lingering memory of that defeat and will allow England to move forward.

England are a completely different outfit from the solid, if unspectacular days of Sven Goran Eriksson and certainly from McClaren's hapless spell in charge. No player is sure of his place, players such as Carlton Cole are being blooded and may well force their way into the reckoning should England qualify. Gone are the days where reputation preceeded form as a criteria for selection as Capello moulds a team rather than a collection of eleven, although talented, individuals.

England are far from the finished article as Saturday's friendly against Slovenia showed, but they are drastically improved. Defensive options beyond Terry and Ferdinand are unproven and as yet unconvincing and although Capello's recent squads have been relatively settled, the names of the 23 members of the potential World Cup squad remain a mystery.

Hopefully England can clinch a place at South Africa 2010 and take their place at a tournament where they have an outside chance of victory, especially with the likes of France, Portugal and Argentina struggling to book their place to the first World Cup in Africa.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Bloodgate: The Fallout

RUGBY: Harlequins

Harlequins started the season yesterday with a disappointing 26-15 victory at Twickenham as they failed to create headlines on the pitch that would distract from the ongoing 'Bloodgate' scandal that continues to dominate the news off the pitch.

The bloodgate scandal saw Quins fined £260,000, the offending player Tom Williams banned for four months (reduced from one year on appeal), their physio banned for two years and their former Director of Rugby Dean Richards banned for three years yet many figures within the sporting media have stated their happiness with the severity of the punishment handed to Quins.

Articles such as this one in The Times have stated their delight that ERC have decided to hand out such penalties as it necessary to prove that Rugby is an honest, honourable sport especially when compared to the sport that many within the game constantly measure itself against; football. Now I am a fan of both sports (although I regard myself predominantly a football fan) yet it constantly irritates when fans and figures within Rugby Union see the game as morally superior to football. This is a sport that hands out a four month ban to a player acting under orders to feign injury, yet gives a ban of eight weeks to a player found guilty of eye-gouging. Not only were Schalk Burger's actions disgraceful, his coach, Peter de Villiers, defended it saying it was part of the game and that those who disagreed should take up ballet dancing instead. Now while Quins' actions deserved to be punished, how can a game take such a moral highground when it has other, arguably more pressing issues to deal with?

It has even been suggested that Richards' actions are due to his association with Leicester Tigers, a club that pioneered the concept of professionalism in Rugby Union. For a sport that prided itself on the amateur ideal to separate itself from professionalism in other sports such as football and Rugby League, a belief that professionalism caused this cheating is no surprise.

Harlequin's reputation has taken a huge hit over the summer as a result of the scandal and it will be difficult to rebuild. Although the team have been rightly reprimanded, it speaks volumes about the sport that some call "Violence with honour" would see cheating, a foreign element more evident in other sports, punished more severely than an act of barbarism