Euro 2012 – How was the football in the Group stages?

Players sent off, a surprise defeat of one of the tournament favorite’s, a fervent victory for the host nation and just one draw – The first games of the group phase of Euro 2012 have been completed, so where are we now? What have we learnt? Who should I put a tenner on now?

In Group A Russia are were the standout performers putting four past the Czech Republic to top score after the first round. Andrey Arshavin, playing his club football at Zenit St Petersburg, was instrumental in much of the positive, attacking play on display. Co-hosts Poland and Greece finished with a 1-1 draw in a match were the referee made the headlines when he sent off the unpronounceable Sokratis Papastathopoulos for two tame yellow cards as well as Poland and Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

In the actual group of death containing Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal and Germany there was a monumental success for the Danes when they beat 2010 World cup finalists 1-0 setting up the remaining fixtures in the group as tantalizingly important match-ups. Portugal who came through the play-off route to get to the Finals were only roused to life once Mario Gomez had headed the Germans into the lead. Joachim Loew’s side lived up to their clinical ruthlessness by being certain to dispatch one of their few chances.

The second tier group of death, Group C, didn’t produce particularly surprising results as Spain and Italy ended 1-1 and Croatia defeated the Republic of Ireland 3-1, but the outcomes do leave an air of unpredictability if Croatia can maintain the pace they started with.

France came into the tournament unbeaten in their last 21 games with a third of this total being draws. That is exactly what they got against England, despite going one goal down Manchester City striker Samir Nasri secured a point for les Blues. Surely the best of the group stage games was kept to last as co-host Ukraine took on Sweden in Kiev. The home side was inspired by their star man Andriy Shevkenko who scored twice to force his side to a 2-1 win. Having to come from behind seemed to ignite the passion of the players who were determined to perform for their enthusiastic supporters. On paper the Ukraine were the underdogs but as is often the case, the honour of hosting appeared to give them the impetus to succeed; upsets can bring the whole competition to life.

The second round of group matches get underway tonight when Poland take on Russia in Warsaw while Greece hope to improve against the Czech Republic at the Municipal Stadium, Wroclaw.

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England – what is wrong with Steven Gerrard?

English: Steven Gerrard playing for Liverpool ...

Gerrard - good enough for Liverpool but not England?

What does Steven Gerrard have to do to get a deserved break with England? He is finally fit, he has been a consistently strong player for his national team and he gives 100% each time he gets picked to play.

John Terry has made a fiasco of the England captaincy, Rio Ferdinand doesn’t want it, Frank Lampard can’t get a look in and while Scott Parker seems like a thoroughly sound character with leadership credentials worthy of a captain, Gerrard has been in the frame longer. He has captained Liverpool, supposedly one of the greatest football clubs in the world to major success including the  Champions League and yet he still gets snubbed by England. Take nothing away from Parker; in different circumstances he would be an admirable choice. There is not a debate to made that England have an abundance of leaders at the minute, with the squad and approached favoured by caretaker manager Stuart Pearce, Gerrard and Parker are it.  The thought that Gerrard is at best fourth choice to take the armband now, or for the up-coming Euros, is difficult to believe. What Herculean qualities do England selectors look for in a captain? Is a candidate who doesn’t have their martial affairs, disloyal relationships and/or racist allegations emblazoned across every tabloid from Barking to Brisbane not enough?

What would Benjamin Franklin say about referees?

U.S Presidents make a lot of speeches and say a lot of words, sometimes wise, sometimes they are George W. Bush. Many quotes filter down through history to be applied by generations far removed from the original orator. Benjamin Franklin is credited with writing, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” The sentiment still rings true today but can be adapted to suit the world, our world, as it is now. Today nothing can be certain except death, taxes, tube delays, Torres goal drought and referees getting abuse.

Watching England take on Wales in the 6 Nations with a couple of valley boys with matching JPR Williams tattoos (not really but that would be fun) the referee was getting as much abuse as Jeremy Guscott received the previous weekend for wearing his mothers scarf on national television. Perhaps this isn’t the best example as Steve Walsh, who in a politically correct environment would be described as having a ‘chequered’ past, was verging on dismal.  To say he leaned towards England on the majority of the decisions would be like saying the Costa Concordia isn’t quite upright – but that is a discussion for another day.

English: World Track Championships 2008 Manche...

Chris Foy does not look like this

The recent barracking Olympic cyclist Sir Chris Hoy received through social networks site when irate Spurs fans mistook him for football referee Chris Foy was comical for the burly Scotsman although he has broad, muscular shoulders big enough to cope with a bit of misplaced grief. Again, maybe not the most appropriate example as Hoy not Foy is at least a demi-god.

In other sports referees don’t have such an obvious impact on proceedings, you might not have even known they were there. Diving referees don’t cause much trouble, that is, officials in the sport of diving, not Howard Webb going to ground so he can red card himself and get off the pitch quickly. Without researching the position it is easy to wonder when they might be called into action. Images of the consequences of their decisions could cause splashing tantrums from disconsolate next-to-naked divers. How do competitors break the rules? Do they strap on wings? Tie weights to their ankles? Slather baby oil from head to toe to make themselves more slick through the water? Do these referees have yellow and red cards? Maybe, thanks to the Olympics diving will move into the main stream so more and more people will get the opportunity to shout at the TV screen giving passionate, hearty advice to the referee as their favourite competitor belly-flops for the fifth time in a row.

Sporting Oscars

What do people who are not interested in sport do with their weekends? It’s a mystery. Having just four television channels, not the full fat, wall-to-wall, obesity inducing, pocket robbing Sky Sports package, three rugby matches, one Cup final and spring time horse racing were on show over two days as well as highlight programmes of football league action and the 6 Nations competition. Individually and collectively the performances produced more drama, excitement, heartache and release than many of the films nominated for a Hollywood Oscar did. Sportsmen and women often lament the highs and lows of winning medals or silverware, ranking one performance against another but the truth is, they would rather have the award than not. So stand up, show some leg and accept this weekends Sporting Oscars…..

Best performance – Cardiff City. This is not a sympathetic vote; the Championship side defied themselves and science by staying upright as many of the team suffered cramp and beyond exhausted exhaustion. The Bluebirds literally gave everything they had to force the tie into extra time so much so that Rudy Gestede nearly didn’t make it as far as the ball when he came forward to take a spot kick.

Best leading man – Sam Warburton. What is this man made off? Strong, determined, hard as nails but clever and alert with it.

Best storyline – Gerrard and Gerrard. Cousins and opponents on the day of the Carling Cup final, both miss penalties yet one is the hero lifting the cup high.

Best drama – England nearly scoring a try in the final minute of the game against Wales. It wasn’t a try though and Wales went on to celebrate a victory and the Triple Crown, the champagne tasting all the sweeter as they paraded around Twickenham and under England’s noses.

Best twist – Arsenal versus Tottenham. This script could not have been written. Arsenal off the back of a couple of losses but more worryingly a few hideous performances went two down and deservedly so. The switched was flicked and team suddenly caught up with the imagination of the writer as five goals, scored by four different players, hit the back of the net and at the same time the reality button for Tottenham and their supporters. Yea they are a good team but nothing can be taken for granted yet, they are not guaranteed third spot or Champions League football just yet.

Best reaction – Tom Court. The front row scored a try against Italy when the game was dead and buried as a contest but celebrated like he had just secured the World Cup for his country

Best name – Dodging Bullets. The unfortunately named horse didn’t win the Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle at Kempton, finishing behind Baby Mix ridden by a jockey whose name always invokes a smirk for less literal reason, Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton.

Best newcomer – Stuart Hogg .The 19 year old scored the opening try for Scotland on his home debut proving that his side were not actually physically repelled from the try line but were able to cross the whitewash and claim five point to out the wind up a stagnant French team.

Best oldcomer – Ryan Giggs. As far as the Welshman is concerned it has all been said before but then he keeps setting new records and breaking old ones. On his 900th appearance for Manchester United Giggs scored an injury time winner that ensures his team remain only two points shy of city rivals.

Can a sports fan embrace all sports?

How many times have you heard someone say ‘I’m a sports fan, I love sport. It’s great’? What they really mean is they enjoy heading down to the pub and slagging off fat and/or overpaid footballers. They can display adaptability by splurging on the sofa infront of the telly and wonder how Ian Bell has racked up over 70 Test appearances for England despite being more inconsistent than the British weather. When people say they are a sports fan doesn’t it usually equate to watching a couple of different games (usually Football and Cricket) on a regular basis? If only Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup where categorised as different sports rather versions of the one then some fans would just have their horizons expanded further even than KP could thump on an on-day.

This week I went to watch a sport that I had never seen before and it was an eye-popping spectacle….

What attracts a person to a sport is often obvious, even if you have never participated yourself, from a distance you can understand why others do. Running fills you with a sense of freedom, horse riding encourages you to form a partnership with a powerful, intelligent animal, darts means you drink and play at the same time for example. Platform diving however is a sport that can is not easily comprehensible. The obvious technical intricacies along with great power and flawless timing needed was overshadowed by the constant disbelief as to why, never mind how, anyone could do it.

Watching the 18 women perform five dives each off the 10 metre platform in the semi-final of the World Cup at the London Aquatics centre was an awesome sight. Sitting behind the row of judges in a seat I like to think my bottom christened, I wanted to know what it was I was seeing in order to try and fathom just how incredible this sport it. The information available to the spectator was useful, fast and clear so the description of each dive was provided before it happened. I found myself counting rotations and twists while observing the difference between the back and the inward. HOw comfortable my plastic, moulded chair felt each time a competitor reached their toe to the edge to fell where the safety of the concrete platform ended and time and space began. Every so often I would flick my head backwards in anticipation of the diver jumping backwards, head first off the precipice as I tensed up preparing for them to enter the water, hopefully more vertically than horizontally.

The armchair fans becomes an expert in Olympic qualifying pace. As I imagined what the view might be like from the top of the platform (not on the way off it), the newcomer sitting beside me figured out that the success of the dive was simply down to the size of the splash at the end, anything that happened before then didn’t make too much of a difference. Although the likes of Monique Gladding or Ruolin Chen (I know my divers!) might contest this synopsis it is definitely a useful tool when watching the sport as a beginner.

The surroundings were outstanding, the standard was world class and the crowd appreciative of what they were witnessing but do these things combine to make diving a sport for the fans? In my mind the physical connotations these athletes train their body to perform makes the sport much more impressive than football, cricket or even darts but the one thing lacking from the spectacle was the feeling that I wanted to do it myself. There was no twitching resentment in the back of my brain that if only I had spent more time on (or off) the diving boards instead of the slide during the summer holidays, or if only I had been born in China I too could launch myself from on-high in my speedo reciting in my head as I leapt the divers mantra – don’t splash, whatever happens, don’t splash. I wasn’t to be so instead I can embrace the sport with respect, and a constance wince.