Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Alex Pritchard: Is the best yet to come?

March 21st 2015

Brentford FC have made some great loan signings over the years. The Bees promotion to League One following the 2008/2009 season was boosted by nine goals scored by Jordan Rhodes, on loan from Ipswich Town. Rhodes was only 18 at the time but he isn’t the only youngster to make an impression at Griffin Park.

A year later, Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny showed his quality between the sticks with some phenomenal performances which helped Brentford finish 9th after tailing off at the end of the season. Last year, Marcello Trotta played his part in helping Brentford gain promotion as did Alan Judge who arrived with a bang from Blackburn. However, this season there is another young player who is challenging for the position of the best loanee in Brentford’s recent history – and that is Tottenham’s Alex Pritchard.

Since his arrival in West London, Pritchard has been one of the most important players in Mark Warbuton’s side. His statistics say it all with eight goals so far this season and the second highest number of assists, six to Judge’s eight. But those who have been watching Pritchard play will also respect the maturity and composure he has shown at the age of 21.

Warbuton is clearly a big fan of the youngster and said in a recent interview that Pritchard was ‘nailed on’ to be a Premier League player. Pritchard is taking one step at a time but understands his form at Brentford could see him follow in the footsteps of other young talent from Spurs academy such as Ryan Mason and Harry Kane.

“At the start of the season I was just working my way into playing Championship football but as the season has gone on – and with the team playing so well – my performances are getting better and better,” says Pritchard.

“A new challenge for me is to play Premier League football. Hopefully that will be the case next season.”

It is understandable that Pritchard has the Premier League on his mind, whether this is the thought of playing for Spurs or helping to achieve promotion to the top flight with Brentford.

“With eight games remaining, the main thing for the team is to get into the Premier League. At the beginning of the season everyone was writing us off but now you look at how we are playing and how good the team is together, and how everyone is involved, it’s brilliant. However, there is still a long way to go until the end.”

“The reason we have been so consistent is that there is a really good spirit in training. Everyone has bonded really well and on match days we stick together even when we are losing and not getting the right results.”

Pritchard is certainly enjoying playing under Warbuton and is happy with his decision to embark on a Championship journey with the Bees.

“It was a joint decision to play here but Warbuton was important as to why I chose Brentford. The way he pitched it to me about the sort of football that was going to be played was spot on – he hit the nail on the head.”

“It has been brilliant playing here. I feel no pressure and I feel free to express myself how I want. I do things that other managers wouldn’t necessarily let me do. You can run with the ball and dribble and if you lose it nobody is going to moan at you. I have never had him moan at me once.”

It is hard to talk to a Brentford player without mentioning the Club’s decision to part with Warbuton at the end of the season. A clash of philosophies was the reason why it was no longer possible for Warbuton to continue his role under Brentford owner Matthew Benham.

“We went through a bit of a blip and it wasn’t the best time. But the boys know what has gone on now and that the main priority is to get into the Premier League. All the rumours are behind us now as everyone knows what is going on. I don’t think that it will be a problem.”

As one of the most regular players in the starting line-up, Pritchard has little complaints when it comes to time on the pitch. He is the third most utilised Brentford player after goalkeeper David Button and centre midfielder Jonathan Douglas. However, the influx of talent into the side has meant that there are players who are less happy about the status quo.

“It is always difficult when a team is doing so well and players are not getting into the team but us players have to stick together. It is not just about the starting 11, when players are not playing they are still around and helping us. It is about having a strong squad – and that’s why we have been so good.”

Although the recent loss against Cardiff was a set-back, Pritchard has fond memories of playing the Welsh team at their home ground, Cardiff City Stadium. Personally, it was one of his best performances of the season – although as a team effort the turnaround at Blackburn would rate highly too.

“Cardiff away was a really good game for me. The first half… not the second. The way the team played was amazing and to score, and get a couple of assists, that’s the match that stands out for me. This year I am concentrating more on getting goals than getting assists but to mix it up is good too.”

With the battle at the top of the Championship as tight as it has been for many years, Pritchard is still confident Brentford will be in the mix at the end of the season. In fact, he thinks that the top spot is not out of reach – especially with all the top teams regularly dropping points. Brentford are still only seven points off automatic promotion although the battle for play-off places is fierce.

“Yes we can win it! But there are eight of us pushing for those top spots – and any eight of those teams are in with a chance. We have played some very good teams this season – the ones which stand out for me are Middlesborough, who are very well organized, and also Watford were very good.”

“Home wins are going to be crucial from now on. The London derby against Millwall is going to be key. We put one over them at their home ground so they are going to come here fighting for points. Hopefully we can go out there and beat them.”

With only four losses at home this season, playing at Griffin Park has not been a problem for Pritchard and his team-mates. Since the beginning of the 2013-2014 season, the stadium with a pub on every corner has become a fortress – and not somewhere anyone wants to visit, even Chelsea.

“The support has been key and it is like we have an extra man at home. Our home form says it all – we have been excellent. And at away matches, our supporters’ numbers have been growing throughout the season. The fans have been great this year and have helped us fight until the very end.”

Pritchard is not just a breath of fresh air for Brentford, but also for the fact that he is an English talent who looks like he is going to make it to the very top.

Tottenham’s academy is on a roll at the moment, producing a number of homegrown players. We all know about Harry Kane – but Spurs also field academy players Ryan Mason and Andros Townsend. In a Premier League dominated by foreign acquisitions, Tottenham are making a bold move to distance themselves from the status quo and invest in talent a little nearer to their doorstep.  So why have they been so successful in doing this?

“They are giving English talent a chance. There is some very good English talent out there and I see the boys coming through now and they are there because they have been given a chance – and they are taking it! I think that is one of the main things – not holding them back.”

“I played with Mason last year at Swindon – and he has just been given a chance and he is not going to let that go now. Tottenham have shown that if you stay with them, they will open the door.”

With a place in the England Under-21 team, the future for Pritchard might hold more than a first team position with Spurs. As one of the country’s most talented youngsters, success with the Three Lions also beckons and while his Brentford team-mates enjoy a summer break, Pritchard will be concentrating on the next challenge – the 2015 Under-21 European Championships in the Czech Republic.

Pritchard is a London boy through and through. He plays for Brentford and is signed to Tottenham but the club closest to his heart is West Ham. This is where he started his youth career.

“I have grown up all my life supporting West Ham so I know that I play for Tottenham but you can’t change your colours. There are lots of boys out there who play for one team but support another. ”

Unsurprisingly, football is a main part of Pritchard’s life whether he is playing for Brentford or watching West Ham. But what does he do with his social time away from the game?

“Well there is not a lot of time but I try to get away and see my family and friends. Go shopping, maybe play some golf – but in the summer not when it is cold.”

“Out of the boys at Brentford, I mostly hang out with Moses, Nico and Andre as they live close by me. I don’t see the boys from Spurs but I speak to them sometimes. I am sure I will catch up with them more at the end of the season.

Pritchard is almost certain to leave Griffin Park at the end of the season but he realises this might be harder to do than he first imagined when he arrived at the start of the season.

With a new stadium on the horizon and an owner heavily investing in the future, isn’t Brentford a club that very few players want to leave?

“We are doing so well that nobody wants to leave Brentford at the moment but you never know what is going to happen. We don’t know what is going to happen over the summer but the way things are going there will be very few people wanting to leave this club.”

And while Pritchard is a sign that the Tottenham academy is moving in the right direction, what does the future look like at Brentford.

“I have only trained with a few of the development players but when they have come in they have been exceptional. You wouldn’t think that they are in the development team – they look like they’ve been a part of the team for a while. It is looking good for the future of Brentford Football Club.”

Brentford will be sorry to see him go but Pritchard has already become a loanee signing that fans will not forget for a long while. Whether he is to become our greatest of all time very much depends on the next few weeks.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

It should not be painful to talk periods

"Girl things."

They were just two little words that came out of Heather Watson’s mouth after her disappointing first round loss at the Australian Open.

It was clear that the promising young Brit was not at the races against Tsvetana Pironkova despite winning her second WTA title the week before.

Before the mention of the 'girl thing' thing, the media had struggled to make sense of what was wrong. Low energy, a virus, a return of glandular fever - everyone was guessing what the problem was.

Not for one moment did anyone think that Heather Watson may be suffering because she was simply on her period.

And to me, that is absurd.

That period pains do not seem to exist when it comes to sportswomen. With the profile of women’s sport on the up, I still can’t think of a single instance when a competitor has pointed at her ovaries when asked what went wrong out there.

‘Talk to this troublesome duo, they know!’

But now two words from Watson – and we are finally talking about the dreaded P word - PERIODS.

In this article the BBC talks to a selection of sportswomen about the effect periods had on their careers. The article is hastily put together but never-matter because it is the comment section at the bottom which is far more interesting. Once again it provides an opportunity for some men to say women are making a fuss about nothing and questioning whether the subject is worth talking about at all.

Why the bloody hell not? If we dedicate reams of online space to mental health problems, why can’t we have an open chat about period pains? Because they only affect women?

If you are woman, have friends who are women, are married to a woman - you are probably well accustomed to hot-water bottles, strained faces and quiet mumblings ‘I am on my period.’ Just Google 'period pains' and you will be left in no doubt about the extent to which many women suffer.

And there is no reason to suggest sportswomen are any different.

So if there are women on the pitch, court or track struggling due to period pains, shouldn't we want to know about it? Isn't it weird that we don't? Hey women folk, why aren't you speaking out?

It's a complicated matter - but I believe lots of women don’t like talking about periods because they are not sexy, attractive, womanly or anything else that reminds us of a Disney princess (unless I missed the Disney which features Arial turned upside down). I mention my period to freak men out and I think my dad is the only man who truly understands how much I used to suffer. It didn't just affect me playing sport, it stopped me from playing sport. But thanks to yoga me and my ovaries get on a bit better these days..

But I don’t think this is why sportswomen never (and it really does seem to be never) mention period pains. If Paula Radcliffe can poo in the street, I’m pretty sure she would happily wave her bloody tampon at you. No, these sweaty women who contort their faces, grunt and pant are worried about something far more important than looks: using an excuse.

These tough women who have dedicated their lives to being the cream of the crop want to be taken seriously. By men just as much as by women. The mere mention of period pains (as has been shown from the reaction to the BBC article) leads to men cramping up. (So I suppose at least in some way they know how we feel.)

Imagine sitting in a press conference of predominantly men and telling them the reason you didn’t win Wimbledon, an Olympic gold, the marathon was because Aunty Flow came to visit. It would sound weak, it would be uncomfortable for everyone – better just tell them that the cat died… inside your uterus.

Or to smile and say it wasn’t your day. Or to not blame anything at all.

After all, these women are tough… but we must question whether they are being too tough?

The main reason I think this issue deserves attention boils down to honesty. Aren’t we all so much happier when we are honest? A burden is lifted off our shoulders, others can relate to our difficulties, nobody feels alone, there are less taboos, people can live freely.

The pain, that horrible pain, which is a bit like having food poisoning but not being able to be sick - returns monthly to destroy some women's lives. A bit more honesty might help. Less pressure to pretend, more empathy from others – it could be just what our ovaries ordered.

Sportswomen’s silence could be putting unreal expectations into the minds of young girls who want to reach for the stars but their ovaries aren’t letting them.

I am so grateful to Heather Watson for uttering those two words ‘girl things’ – this conversation is thoroughly overdue.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Football is too immature to deal with Ched Evans

I don’t know what to make of the Ched Evans case, which is strange because lots of other people know exactly what they think about it. For some, he should never be seen on a football pitch, and for others, he should be given a second chance.

How can we really argue with either of these statements?

But for me the reason why Ched Evans shouldn’t play for a professional football team for a long while is because football is not grown up enough to have him. The reason it was right for Sheffield United to display caution towards signing the striker is because football is the little boy at the birthday party lifting the girls skirts while high-fiving his mates.

There is one fundamental problem at stake if we accept Evans with open arms, ‘What does this mean we think about the victim – a woman.' 'Does it mean we don’t care about her?' 'Does it mean we hate women?'

The problem is this is too close to the bone, for football.

Football doesn’t have a reputation, or resume, that can afford the ‘We hate women’ tag. It is a mumbling, bumbling, burbling wreck when it comes to dealing with the female sex and it always has been. From the FA banning women’s football when the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team showed dominance in the 1920s to the lack of female representation in the current game at all levels – English football struggles to get the balance right when it comes to women.

Perhaps this is why there is such public interest in this case. Many women and a growing number of men want football to become more liberal and accepting to all groups – and yet in this case being liberal (if we say this is to allow Evans to return) would reek of conservatism. Oh yes, the old boys club in action again, busy ignoring the public – favouring the players over anything else.

I am not judging Evans, the victim, the judiciary system when I think of this case, I am making a judgment (astute I believe) against the maturity of football in this country. If the FA and English football had a better reputation with women, and if football wasn’t such a male-dominated world, it would be far easier to accept Evans back into the football fold. If there was a little more female representation at clubs and within major organisation such as the FA, and the media, it would be easier to trust the sport to make the right decision.

The reason I don’t want to see Evans back on the pitch is because I fear he will be cheered on by fans who take his appearance as a sign that if you commit rape, the game will welcome you back.

However, another great fear of mine is that there will be some thinking, 'Chill out – it’s only a woman he attacked – and women should have nothing to do with our game anyway.'

Sunday, 23 November 2014

London Live Sport round up

A Significant Friendly

England take to Wembley turf for the first time against tough opposition
Published in the Evening Standard

It takes Alex Scott a moment to remember when England last lost a competitive match. Under Head Coach Mark Sampson, England breezed through qualifying for the 2015 World Cup in Canada with 10 wins out of 10. Away from World Cup qualification, England recorded an impressive 4-0 victory over Sweden, a team ranked above Sampson’s side in the FIFA rankings.

“The last time we lost a competitive match must have been at the Euros last year. It’s something I haven’t really thought about,” the England and Arsenal defender told Standard Sport.

“I think we knew as players we should be beating the teams in our qualifying group but to score so many goals, and concede only one, we couldn’t do much better than that.”

While 2014 has been full of victories and goals, England’s women still have plenty to prove against Germany on Sunday after crashing out of the 2013 European Championships in the group stages. The early exit led to the departure of Hope Powell who had been in charge for 15 years.

Scott seems happy under the reign of Sampson, who has brought a fresh look to a team that often featured a familiar group of players.

“Mark has come in and changed the philosophy, the buzz around the team. We are going into games a lot more positive. He has freshened things up and there are some really exciting and young players coming through.”

One particularly young and exciting player is 21-year-old Fran Kirby, a striker for WSL 2 side Reading who scored 29 goals last season. Sampson’s bold decision to integrate a player from the second tier of the WSL looks to have paid off and Kirby was named Women of the Match on her debut against Sweden.

“If she keeps going the way she’s going, Fran has a big future in the women’s game. That’s the good thing about Mark, if you play well you are going to get a chance.,” says Scott.

Kirby and company will have to be in fine fettle if they are to upset the European Champions Germany – a team who also recorded the perfect World Cup qualifying campaign and are ranked World Number 2, five places above England.

Not only will the record crowd spur them on but also their poor record against their European rivals. England have never beaten Germany and the last time the teams met Germany denied England the 2009 European Championships title.

When asked to name Germany’s danger players, Scott is not sure where to start: “They are a force. There are so many dangerous players and they keep coming at you, they are relentless. Alexandra Pop is an amazing midfielder, she is so strong and technically gifted . They will be a real challenge.”

A victory on the pitch is important, but arguably a more important victory has already been achieved. The match against Germany marks the first time the England women’s team have played at Wembley and the capped 55,000 crowd is well above what anyone predicted.

“This is a special occasion and a great time for women’s football. When Great Britain played Brazil everyone thought it was Olympic fever but this match shows the interest is there and we need to put on a good show to keep fans coming back.”

Scott says playing at Wembley for England is a childhood dream but she will not be a bundle of nerves on the big occasion. The unofficial team DJ is more likely to be found dancing or making sure nerves don’t get the better of less experienced players. Scott believes the match is the ideal test before playing in front of big crowds in Canada next summer.  

Whether the players like it or not - the future of women’s football is tied to the results England achieve on the pitch.

“In order to capitalise on this support, we must do well in the World Cup next year. The media are now covering our matches and putting women’s football in people’s faces. We need to achieve results that keep us in the media so people can connect with us and follow the story and our progress.”

With clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester City investing more into their women’s sides, the top flight of women’s football finally has the competitive edge it has been lacking. An exciting climax to the 2014 season, which saw reigning Champions Liverpool edge to victory over Chelsea, has no doubt wetted the appetite for the fixture at Wembley. Unfortunately for Scott, all this competition means Arsenal no longer run away with the title year after year.

“Crowd figures are up across the board. Man City get good crowd averages and Arsenal do at Boreham Wood. But we need to make sure these 55,000 fans filter down into the women’s game.”

“We are role models and seeing us play makes young players realise they can make a career out of playing football. Many never looked at women’s football like this before, but now girls are believing they can become professional and make a salary out of the sport.”

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Balotelli: The Gamble Liverpool could ill afford

The power is now in Balotelli's hands, which could spell trouble for Rodgers

At a time when Liverpool looked to be maturing into a team that could challenge for the Premier League, Brendan Rodgers took a gamble.   

Rodgers gambled on a footballer who has proved difficult to handle at the biggest clubs in the world. A player with a petulant and irrational streak, one who sees an aggressor lurking around every corner.

Why always me? Hmmm... Maybe because you want it to be Mario? For it seems Balotelli never gets tired of attention, and scarcely cares whether this is positive or negative. 

This is a player who wore an AC Milan shirt on television as an Internationale player and a month later threw his Inter Milan shirt on the floor after being criticised by a fan.

This is the player who recorded four red cards in the 2011/2012 season for Man City, when he wasn't busy setting off fireworks or throwing darts at people.

And this is the player Brendan Rodgers signed before the 2014 season.

Perhaps this wasn't a gamble at all, perhaps it was a mistake. A hasty decision made in the panic to replace Luis Suarez. 

If I was a Liverpool fan I would be livid, not just because livid works well alongside the word Liverpool. At the end of last season, Liverpool went agonisingly close to winning the league. They were a club on the up - the out of form players such as Jordan Henderson were improving, the rise of Raheem Sterling was imminent, and Steven Gerrard was the perfect captain to guide this promising side. The team was undoubtedly boosted by Suarez but also showed plenty of promise without him.

Rodgers had managed to do the hardest thing in football – create a team.  A team which doesn't rely on one player. Where players play for each other and their manager, where egos don’t have a place on or off the pitch, and where defeat hurts.

All seemed so well and Champions League football beckoned, and then… a perhaps unforgivable decision was made for the club.

Super Mario - mushroom splatterer, shell dodger, chum of Toad - arrived at Merseyside at the price of a biscuit, but at the threat of risking it. An unsettling character was to be integrated into a team which didn’t need it, which was too young to handle it.  

Apparently the price was too good – which begs the question how much should it cost to set back your football club?

Or in the words of Jamie Redknapp, "There’s a reason when you go to the supermarket and things are half price."

Rodgers should have stuck with his gut which initially told him NO! He should have realised there is no reason Balotelli would behave himself for Liverpool when he has struggled in his native Italy. That a player too difficult for Mourinho is probably too difficult for him. And anyway, why would Balotelli be loyal to Liverpool – what connection does Balotelli have, did he even know what Liverpool was? 

People said it was Balotelli’s last chance at top league football and that he was desperate to prove himself. Come on now, let's not be silly and pretend that every player cares so much about football. There are plenty of clubs which will pay for his name, failing that there is the promise of a financially fruitful future in Russia or Asia.

Rodgers has now got to face up to something even more destructive than Balotelli - his ego. It got him into this position, and only saying 'tally-ho ego' which will get him out of it. He simply stands no chance against the irrational whimsy of football's Peter Pan. 

Balotelli has got to go. It is not fair on the other players to have such a provocative influence around, especially one who is not performing on the pitch. Even if Balotelli’s form dramatically improves, it will only be achieved by the whole team rotating the earth so it revolves around Planet Balotelli.

Mario needs time, resources and babying which Liverpool don't owe him. They need stability and calm if they are to rekindle the form they showed last season. That brought them so desperately close to winning the league.

I really wanted to see what happened to that team.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Mo Farah brings Olympic legacy to Hounslow

"What is really emotional for me is the involvement of Mo and Tania. To come back and put this much into the Hounslow community is something I am incredibly proud of. This is what Olympic legacy is about."

These were the words of former PE teacher Alan Watkinson, the man who helped runner Mo Farah grow into one of Britain’s most decorated athletes.

On August 27th, both men returned to the place the journey had started – Feltham Community College – to launch a new local sports programme called Motivate Hounslow.  This initiative aims to motivate young people in Hounslow aged between 14 and 25 to take up sport, or take their talents to the next level.

"I thank Sport England for giving us these funds so we can help kids," said the Olympic, World and European 5,000 and 10,000m champion Mo Farah at the launch.

"To be able to support young people is amazing and I want to spot the next Mo. I want to give them a chance and say look this is where I started, I was just like you at that age."

A generous cheque for £250,000 was handed over by Jon Horne, Government Relationship Manager for Sport England’s Community Sports Activation Fund.

"This is a £47.5 million project across the country and this is one of 160 projects so far that have been funded," said Jon when presenting with the cheque.

"It is not just about people doing more sport but about the impact regular sport participation can have on wider local outcomes, whether this is educational achievement, health, diversity activities – whatever this may be in the local area."

Brentford FC Community Sports Trust, The Mo Farah Foundation and Sport Impact are working together to deliver the programme, which centres around three Motivator coaches who will be working in the most deprived areas of Hounslow to get more young people active.

"The age group we are targeting (14-25 year old) is set up for a reason, and it is a challenge. But we believe we have the credentials to do it, we all have different personalities and are enthusiastic about sport," said Senior Motivator Abdoullah Kheir.

During the launch, young people from the community took part in a variety of different sports activities including basketball, football, tennis, American flag football, boxing, trampolining and sprinting.

Motivator Martin Bradshaw said the diversity of sports on offer reflected the nature of the programme, which would use as many different sports as possible to engage the target age group.

“We will start with schools and colleges, then look to go to youth clubs and talk to young people about what they want and what will make them motivated to come to our project," said fellow Motivator Kojo Sedefia.

Chair of the Mo Farah Foundation, Tania Farah, also attended the event, as did Mo’s daughter Rhianna – who enjoyed taking part in the activities on offer, especially the tennis.

"We are excited to work with Sport Impact and Brentford FC CST, who have experience at ground level working with young people," said Tania.

"By using Mo’s influence hopefully we can develop this into something across the UK. We started in Hounslow because this is where we are from and this is where our heart still lies."

Aspiring Olympian, and Great Britain 100m sprinter Clieo Stephenson, has already benefitted from the work of The Mo Farah Foundation. The sprinter is studying psychology at Brunel University while perfecting her ground speeds.

"When I joined Brunel I applied for a scholarship and the Mo Farah Foundation selected me as one of the four people they support throughout the year," said Clieo, who can run 100m in 11.7 seconds.

"They give me financial help through the course of year, help with injuries and look after me in any way they can. Physio, travel and equipment, that sort of thing."

While Clieo was tearing it up on the mini sprint track, vigorous bouncing on the trampoline took place inside the sports hall, and Brentford FC Club Captain Kevin O’Connor turned up to see the skills on the football pitch.

The Major of Hounslow, Corinna Smart, said the launch was the biggest sporting event of the summer because of Mo Farah’s motivational story and how young people respond to it.

"I am from Feltham Community College and am doing tennis, trampolining and dodge-ball. Mo used to go to this school and I have heard a lot about him. He won lots of medals at the Olympics," said 15-year old Vishal, one of the participants on the day.

If their hard work was spotted by the Motivators, the most impressive performers were awarded prizes by Mo Farah on stage.  With a handy right hook in the boxing ring, 19-year old Dominika was awarded a goody bag with a signed T-shirt from Mo.

"In addition to Sport England, I want to thank our supporters, ISIS Waterside Regeneration, Carillion Parks Management, The Heathrow Community Fund, Brentford Football Club and the London Borough of Hounslow," said Project Manager Neil Young,

"It was through the Hounslow Community, Sport and Physical Activity network – managed by the Borough Council – that this partnership was formed, so I would like to say thank you for bringing us together."

Monday, 25 August 2014

Gutsy Kerber on the prowl for first major

Sharapova (L) and Kerber are two of the WTA's toughest fighters

Two competitors who would not be beaten.

Two and a half hours of gritty and aggressive tennis you couldn’t take your eyes off for a second.  

Arguably one of the greatest battles of Wimbledon 2014 was between Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova in the fourth round.

It was a match that showed that at its peak, women’s tennis has everything its male equivalent has to offer.

It was also a match Angelique Kerber can draw inspiration on ahead of the final major of the season.

“That victory means a lot to me,” recalls Kerber. 

“It meant mentally I could take over a Gram Slam Champion, that I was able to focus that long and not let myself get distracted by her saving so many match points."

Seven agonising match points to be precise, it took to outmuscle Sharapova - the 2014 French Open champion who fought from the depths of her soul to stay in the game.

“It was a big mental victory, a great step. This is one of the matches you try to remember to give yourself a boost when you might be down,” Kerber tells me.  

Ahead of the US Open, the sixth seed will take every boost she can find as she comes up against a strengthening crop of female talent which includes Romanian Simona Halep and Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard.

"One of the most interesting aspects of the US Open for me will be to see whether Eugenie Bouchard can find her confidence again in a Grand Slam setting because she looks so much less of a player on the WTA tour," says tennis writer and broadcaster, Richard Evans. 

“There are a whole gang of hugely talented women players seemingly on the brink of a breakthrough.

“But for intensity, Sharapova and Kerber would be right up there as the most focused and determined competitors in women's sport, let alone tennis.”

Kerber is excited to be returning to 'the city that never sleeps' - a place where she reached her first Grand Slam semi-final in 2011.

"Everything started there for me, that’s where I started to get a significant result and see my hard work finally pay off."

"It’s the last Grand Slam of the year and the atmosphere both on site and in the city is amazing. I like the energy that New York gives you and I enjoy playing on hard court."

Another competition on the German's mind is the Fed Cup final against the Czech Republic in November. Kerber and Germany have the chance to win the tournament for the first time since 1992.

"It has been such a long time since the German team have been in a Fed Cup final, which gives even more intensity to our feelings and maybe pressure also."

"We are all really proud. It’s been an amazing experience, fighting for your country, with your friends and getting good results. It is just unbelievable."

Williams warren 

Kerber could have to draw upon her memories of that battle against Sharapova, if she comes face-to-face with another tricky customer - World Number One Serena Williams.

The players have already met this month, with Serena defeating Kerber 7-6, 6-3 to win the Stanford Classic in California. Entering the competition as favourite and with the chance of claiming three home grand slams on the bounce, the unshakable Williams has put poor performances at the French Open and Wimbledon behind her.

“She is a real complete athlete and not the World Number One for no reason,” says Kerber.

“Technically, physically and mentally, she is really, really strong. Playing against her is always a big challenge, you have to be ready and focus on yourself, trust your game and try to forget she is the one on the other side of the net.”

At her home Grand Slam, it may be easier said than done to forget the Williams presence. 

If the American legend does win another title at Flushing Meadows, she will draw level with compatriots Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on an astonishing 18 Grand Slam titles.

“Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska (winner in Montreal) are well suited to playing on the hard court. I think Simona Halep will leave her mark at this tournament,” says Jason De La Pena, sport presenter and broadcaster at Fox Sports.

"But Serena's win in Cincinnati makes her very dangerous. For me she will win. She was personally wounded by abject performances in Paris and London - she'll win this slam." 

Once more Novak Djokovic and Williams go into a Grand Slam as familiar favourites, but Kerber is one of many who believe a major title could be just around the corner.

"I can always improve everything; my game, fitness, mental strength," said Kerber.

"But I believe in hard work and I will keep working hard every day to reach my personal goal, moving into the Top 5, winning a Grand Slam and then more titles."

Whether a Grand Slam is in Kerber's destiny remains unclear, but she is not a face any rival will want to see at the other side of that net.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Dawn of the super athlete

These days, the technique which enables Portuguese footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, to take the perfect free-kick is no longer solely dissected by football pundits but also by scientists, biomechanics and engineers. Every twitch of muscle, transference of energy and body posture is analysed by sensors and computers so that we can build a greater understanding of what it takes to make the ultimate athlete.

Designed By Jordan (JHecz) Crook For the Redbox Media Team

In the 1950s, the introduction of fiberglass poles saw pole-vaulters leap to new heights.

In the 1970s, the replacement of wood in tennis rackets with a combination of fibreglass and graphite saw tennis players smash former limits.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, swimmers wearing a new bodysuit sent world records tumbling.

Over the last few decades, technological advancements in sport have been moving the benchmark of human limitations. Some of them, like the examples above, are easy to understand: the poles became more flexible; the rackets helped accuracy; and the suits reduced drag – so much so that they were later banned.

But while these advances may have been game changing at the time, a new era of technology has arrived that seeks to lift the lid off the secrets to our biomechanics and help push both professional and amateur athletes to their limit.

In every sport, and at every level, companies are now supplying equipment, clothing and gadgets in a bid to revolutionise the way professionals and amateurs train, compete and recuperate.

If it wasn’t for 3D technologies, Australian skeleton racer, John Farrow, may never have competed in this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

In 2011, whilst training, Farrow suffered a horrific knee injury which left him with a nerve paralysis condition called foot drop. After initially relying on a rigid carbon foot-brace made with friends, Farrow’s run-off times greatly improved after his doctor designed an ankle foot orthotic (ATO) based on a 3D model of his foot and leg.

“The ATO was more dynamic and gave me a fluid movement. It was comfortable and my performance improved greatly. It also allowed me to train better in sprints and at the gym in the lead up to the Games,” says Farrow, who finished 17th at his debut Games in Sochi.

Before Sochi, Farrow also underwent 3D body scanning to ensure his clothing was perfectly moulded to his body.

Although the difference clothing makes is minor, small margins increasingly matter in elite sport. And sports brands are doing everything to persuade customers that they can give them that winning edge.

One doesn't fit all

Professor of biomechanics at Brunel University, Bill Baltzopoulos, uses 3D technology specifically to map human motion and help athletes gain that split second advantage and at the same time protect them from injury. He has welcomed many sprinters, including Jamaican Olympic champion, Usain Bolt, to his lab.

“In the field of research, these 3D models tell us what factors contribute to Bolt’s performance. What makes him unique is his build and how it enables him to exert a huge force over a short period of time and maintain it.”

“Technology has advanced so much that you can measure whatever you want, but it is how you incorporate this into the athlete’s regime that’s important,” says Baltzopoulos.

Baltzopoulos and his team combine sensor technology with 3D software to measure movement in the athletes’ body against the forces that are applied to equipment, such as a treadmill.

When it comes to improving performance, Balzopoulos believes this kind of real-time feedback is vital as it allows coaches to alter a training session mid-way through to suit their athlete’s needs.

“Customisation is the key. Everyone has a different running style – from sprinters to long-distance runners. There are different stresses applied, so to be able to provide an optimal shoe [for example] you need to understand the way these people run,” he says.

David Epstein, author of the Sports Gene, agrees. “Every individual has completely inimitable biology and psychology so, for peak performance, they would need to have unique [requirements]. When we fail to understand the kind of training people with differing muscle types need, we lose them to injury.”

“There is no cookie cutter training that works for everyone, just as medical genetics has shown that there is no single medication that works the same for everyone,” says Epstein.

In recent years, a growing consumer appetite for customisation has seen sports brands embrace technology in order to creating the perfect footwear for individuals. While it is already possible to go online or into a shop to choose the colour and design of shoes, 3D modelling and printing technology is now being used to mould and shape trainers for customers to create the definitive bespoke design.

Although professional athletes have greater access to use and trial these kinds of technologies, Susan Olivier, vice president of consumer goods and retail at Dassault Systèmes, believes 3D modeling techniques will soon be readily available to the public.

“The cost and size of 3D scanning is going down dramatically. I can imagine in three to five years that before shopping we will visit a booth that scans our feet and other body parts. Then we can take the scan to our favourite sports outlet who will be able to design equipment, clothing and footwear to our specifications,” says Olivier.

Sensing change

This thirst for real-time feedback has propelled a rise in sensor technology which Olivier Ribet, vice president of the high tech industry at Dassault Systèmes, says has dramatically improved over the last two to three years and is accelerating.

It is now common for sensors to be placed in shoes and on bikes to track statistics such as distance, incline, speed and power. One recent breakthrough has seen French equipment company Babolat release a smart tennis racket, which uses sensors to give feedback on your game, including the power of shots, variety of shots and level of spin.

“The difference that sensors of this kind make to performance will probably be around 0.1%. But these margins can still be significant over a long match or race. It won’t turn a mediocre athlete into a world class one. It is more incremental than that,” says Ross Tucker, an exercise physiologist and high performance sports consultant.

Technological developments do not always originate from the sports industry itself.

Inventions created for the military, aerospace companies and Formula One are often adapted for the sports industry. When Formula One teams invent a new material, it is often used to design safer equipment and helmets for sportsmen and women.

Although technology has helped make helmets more durable, the last couple of years has seen the media highlight the dangers of playing high impact sports such as ice hockey and American Football.

In August 2013, the National Football League, paid a $765 million settlement deal to thousands of football players who claimed the league hid the truth about head injuries, such as concussion and long-term brain damage. In the hope of minimising damage, specialised helmets with real-time sensors have been developed that track knocks to the head and send alerts to a device such as a smart phone.

Nobody can predict just how much more technology will improve performance and safety.

“Some people think one day we will swallow a pill and this pill will be in our body forever and used to track health and movement," says Rimet.

“Then there are those who say we will put a patch over or even under the skin to track changes contextually and in real time. Then there is the less extreme idea that we will wear a necklace or band which will process information very quickly and tell us exactly what pressure the body is under.”

With technological developments occurring at such a rapid rate in the sports industry, it is unclear how much more they can improve our fundamental biomechanics. From the American runner, Thomas Burke’s 100 metres in 12 seconds in 1896 to Bolt’s record breaking 9.58 seconds in 2012, who knows how many more milliseconds sprinters will shave off that time another century on.

As both professional and everyday athletes race towards perfection, technology sprints alongside helping to develop devices that could push them a little bit further.

Those chasing Bolt, or on the road to recovery like Farrow, will take every advantage they can get.

This article featured on the BBC World website. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

How Andy Murray got us talking about women

When Andy Murray and coach Ivan Lendl parted ways in March, the rumour mill churned into life.

Who could replace the man that had helped Murray become the first British male to win Wimbledon in 77 years.

The answer came in the form that many were not expecting: a woman.

Despite being a former Wimbledon champion herself, something Lendl never managed to achieve, Amelie Mauresmo's appointment raised a few eyebrows.

The reason was two-fold. Firstly, at the tender age of 34 Amelie had limited experience. Secondly, she was not the gender that many people expected to coach one of the world's finest tennis players.

In men's tennis women coaches are a rare breed. Other than Murray, there are only two men in the top 70 with female coaches.

Perhaps even stranger is that there is a noticeable lack of women coaches in the WTA with the top 20 women all coached by men.

While it would be easy to point the finger at a sexist attitude in tennis, the issue is far more complicated than that.

"It is hard for women to coach because there is a lot of travelling. Coaches have to be on the road for 20-40 weeks and for women with kids and family it is hard to be away," Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe'er told Al Jazeera at Wimbledon.

"When I was 12-14 I had a ladies coach but then she got pregnant and couldn't coach me anymore."

British Fed Cup coach and captain Judy Murray agrees that travelling and motherhood make it difficult for some women but believes there are other reasons for the lack of female guidance.

"There isn't a particular clear pathway for women to get to the top," Judy Murray said on the day her son Andy progressed to the third round.

"And there are financial considerations. Many players can only afford one person to travel with them so someone who can act as a hitting partner and coach suits men a lot better. Only the top players can afford big teams."

While the practicalities favour male coaches in the men's tournament Judy Murray rues the lack of women coaches on the WTA and says it would be good to have more women around.

Despite Judy and Andy blazing a new trail for women, there is little doubt the reigning Wimbledon champion wanted the best person for the job. That gender never was the issue.

This viewpoint is supported by another man who broke with tradition to appoint a woman.

"For me I just look if a coach can help," Mikhail Kukushin said after his first round victory over Dudi Sela at Wimbledon.

"I never look if that person is a man, woman, old or young. My wife has coached me for many years and we have good results together and that's why I continue it."

Can women do it?

There are those who question whether a woman can match up to a man.

Australian player Marinko Matosevic said he would never employ a female coach and did not think highly of the women's game, and former Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade mocked Murray's choice.

But Denis Istomin who is also coached by a woman, his mother, believes it can be an advantage.

"It is good being coached by my mother although she is not here for this Wimbledon. She watches on TV but even if she didn't see the match she still knows what I need to do!" Istomin said jokingly after his first round victory.

"It's not easy to say but women are smarter than men in some ways. Mauresmo could have some good advice and it may be a great decision. Andy was also coached by his mother so he knows how it works."

Judy Murray can find no reason why women cannot coach men.

"I've worked with girls and boys and most of my successes have been with boys, maybe because I had boys of my own. It is about dealing with who is in front of you and getting to know their personality."

After coaching Andy and Jamie Murray - who is competing in the doubles at Wimbledon - few would argue about her ability to coach boys. But what about men?

Gender bias

While travelling demands and maternal responsibilities are reasons for fewer female coaches reaching the top levels, it is unclear why former champions such as Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean-King aren't being snapped up.

Especially as there is a growing trend to bring former champions into the coaching set-up, as Roger Federer's appointment of Stefan Edberg and Novak Djokovic's recent partnership with Boris Becker has shown.

Is there still a conservative culture in tennis which would prefer the status quo?

"In tennis it is more difficult to put women in than other sports, even football," says Istomin.

"It is not easy to put a woman into a group of men because they cannot talk about some parts of their life with her. It is not that women cannot give advice to men - they can - but men feel like they cannot be the same team. I think this is the main point.

"In football the women coaches can coach women teams but in tennis it is not easy. Maybe one day when people change and everyone is closer to each other, it will be more equal."

This article featured on the Al Jazeera English website. www.aljazeera.com/sport. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

English players need to leave the country, for the country

Are there too many foreigners in the Premier League?

This is an argument we have heard for the last few years. How can our players develop when there are foreigners blocking their path at every turn. How can they learn to play with each other, when there’s always a Silva or Van Persie screaming for the ball next to them. When they are the only English player on the pitch.

Yes there are too many foreigners in the Premier League.

But there are also too few English players who dare to leave it.

Every single player in the England squad plies their trade in their home nation (this is, with only small doubt, the only nation in the World Cup where this is the case).

Maybe we need to question whether these homebodies should spread their wings and get out into the world – if our national side is to develop. To win.

England players don’t tend to play overseas, unless they are super good like Gareth Bale or super old like Beckham. They never leave home – or the comfort and fortune of the Premier League. And perhaps they are missing out on something – personal growth, knowledge of another country and their training techniques, youth system, learning a new language. But most important of all - being a little bit uncomfortable from time to time.

Travelling makes you grow, makes you stronger, opens your eyes – makes you realise that the English way is not the only way. And that you are not as good as you think you are. Gazza went to Lazio, Lineker went to Barcelona – two of our best English players dared to escape, to learn, to consider a different way.

Yes I know that the Premier League has its fair share of foreign influences now. Boy oh boy does it. It has foreign managers and coaches in abundance. But is this really the same as working in a different country, travelling out of your comfort zone and escaping the macho-anarchic institution of the Football Association.

Over this World Cup, we have seen as much criticism directed at the TV pundits than towards the players.

Quite rightly in my book, as I have been more impressed with the players. But is it any wonder that the pundits lack the insight or personality of foreigners like Thierry Henry – players that have, yes, left the country. Explored the world.

The problems for English football are complicated, but a major issue is we believe that if you played football once upon a time, you can do anything in football. You can manage, coach and commentate. The sad fact is this is not true.

Maybe if English football is to develop we must take a risk on coaches and pundits who have never kicked a darn ball in their life. Or on players who have at least escaped the clinical and outdated English system and can think outside the box.

Wayne Rooney go to PSG, Daniel Sturridge go to Milan, Joe Hart - taste the tapas – then come back and tell everyone all about it. Open your eyes to new coaching setups so you can return and refresh our tired coaching system. It will at least mean you can bounce onto the BBC couch with a few interesting tales to tell.

Immerse yourself into a different culture – so you can build the backbone of Luis Suarez. A player who has battled almost everyone in England and still managed to come out on top. A player who might not have developed into a football freak if he had never left Uruguay.

Yes there are too many foreign players in the Premier League.

But there are also too few English players who dare to leave it.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Marathon: Not always the final frontier

Regular folk are hot on heels of the pros when it comes to pushing limits

On Sunday 21st April 2013, Emma Caldicott and best friend Lucy watched and cheered exhausted runners around the London Marathon course.

Inspired by the occasion, Emma let the idea of competing race through her mind – despite the fact that, in her own words, ‘she couldn’t run.’

On the same day, a man born to run, Mo Farah bowed out at the half-way point – as part of his preparation for the 2014 race. Despite being advised to stick to track events, Farah, like Emma, could not resist the temptations of the London Marathon.

A year later, united as beginners, Emma and Mo were among 36,000 people competing in the 34th London Marathon.

Experts struggled to predict how Farah - the Olympic reigning champion at 5,000 and 10,000m - would deal with a 42,194m race around the streets of London.

On Sunday, it was the Kenyans who dominated with marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang and Edna Kiplagat setting new course records under a cloudless sky. Crowd favourite Farah came home in eight position with a time of 2.08.2.

“For an athlete who is sixth fastest all time at 1500m to complete his first marathon in under 2 hours 10 minutes is quite astonishing," Alan Watkinson, the PE teacher who introduced Mo Farah to running while he was at school in West London, told me.

"With what he has achieved over the last few years there are some that will consider this a failure but it is far from it.”

Although Emma’s run did not generate the same level of coverage as Farah’s, her success was just as emphatic.

“A year ago I could only run for a few minutes on a treadmill," 25-year old Emma told Al Jazeera.

"But there were some people at work applying for the ballot and they told me to apply as nobody gets on… Well apparently people do get on.”

Running on time?

Crossing the finishing line over three hours after Mo, Emma finished the 26 mile marathon in 5 hours 11 minutes.

“I can’t put into words how amazing it was. I would recommend anyone to do it if they want a challenge – as long as you do the training,” says Emma, who has raised close to $2000 for the mental health awareness charity Mind.

There are many stories of triumph like Emma’s. But for others, crossing the finishing line does not always guarantee jubilation. Racing the clock is no longer the preserve of Mo and his fellow pros.

“I am happy I got through it but a bit disappointed I was 10 minutes behind the 4 hours 30 minutes goal,” says 31-year old Wesleigh Pancho, a keen tennis player and runner who has competed in half marathons. “I am already planning how I’ll go faster next time."

While the London Marathon is an occasion to celebrate human endurance, it can end in tragedy.

This year 42-year-old Robert Berry died after crossing the finishing line. His death - the 12th fatality in the race’s history – comes two years after Claire Squires died just a mile from the finishing line.

The risks (albeit small) are doing little to discourage runners from pushing themselves to the limit. In fact, the marathon is just a kick-off point for many.

“I’ve read ‘Born to Run’ three times and my goal will be to run an Ultra Marathon at some point. It is in our DNA to run long distances. There is a 62 mile run from London to Brighton I want to do next year,” says Wesleigh.

Having run the London marathon seven times and with a remarkable personable best of 2:33.50, Alex Gibbins has spent his running career getting the marathon distance perfect.

“I think a lot of ultra-marathon runners like the challenge of distance as opposed to the challenge of trying to run faster – in my view it’s a lot harder to run a 2.30 marathon than just jog round a 50/60/70 mile run,” says 37-year old Alex, who has represented England twice at Masters International Cross Country.

Neigh limit

With triathlons, ultra marathons, ice marathons, desert marathons in vogue, more and more normal beings are embarking on superhuman feats. Is there a danger some runners are pushing themselves too far?

“Ultra-marathons can be very damaging but some people thrive on them. The most important thing is to get a medical check-up, prepare as thoroughly as possible and to maintain a realistic intensity within your capabilities,” says Watkinson, Farah’s former mentor and close friend.

And when outrunning other humans loses its allure, there’s always the temptation to battle a horse.

The man versus horse marathon sees runners race against riders on horseback over 22 miles. It takes place annually in Wales and has been running since 1980 after a pub landlord overheard a discussion of whether a man or horse is faster across country.

“I did run the famous Man v Horse race in 2012 – I’d read about it over the years and always wanted to give it a go just for fun – it’s a very unique event,” Alex tells me.

For Emma, one marathon against humans is probably enough, but the buzz of achieving something she thought impossible a year ago, means she will not be intimidated to try another challenge.

“It is funny what your body can be resilient to – you hear these stories of people running six marathons in seven days. I don’t know how people do that.”

And for those who think they should have gone faster, longer, harder, Alan offers these words of advice. (Words Farah has probably heard once or twice before...)

“The twin imposters line from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ is often quoted in reference to sport. ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.’”

“I would say either take great satisfaction in your efforts or prepare as thoroughly as you can for another shot at it next year.”

There will be many already planning a strategy. To defeat their ultimate rival, themselves.

To donate to Robert Berry’s Just Giving page for the National Osteoporosis Society click here:http://www.justgiving.com/Rob-Berry-uk

Friday, 28 February 2014

Afghanistan sport: Closing the Gap

Cricket leads the way as Afghan sport grows by the day 

“It was a well deserved decision but our aim is not associate membership but full ICC membership”

If any statement could capture why Afghanistan sport is flourishing, this might be it. 

Afghanistan Cricket Board CEO Noor Muhamma Murad is not about to get excited about associate membership - he wants more. 

Considering the recent accomplishments of the Afghanistan cricket team, he is well within his rights to be aiming high. 

Since the overthrow of the Taliban, sports such as cricket, football and rugby have been growing at a phenomenal rate. A nation banned from playing most sports between 1996-2001, has entered the competitive fray with a refusal to look back and a glint in the eye. 

2013 saw a number of sporting triumphs. 

In September, the nation's football team won their first major tournament with a 2-0 victory over India in the South Asian Football Federation Championship. The result put Afghanistan on the football map and positive headlines emanated from the country for many days.

At the Ballon d'Or ceremony, the Afghanistan Football Federation received the FIFA Fairplay award for its work developing grassroots football, building infrastructure and nurturing a professional league.

An international trophy boosts football’s popularity but it still lags behind cricket – the sparkling jewel in the nation’s sporting crown.

The sport became popular amongst Afghan refugees in Pakistan during Taliban rule and it was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, where the Afghanistan Cricket Federation was born. The conservative attire and manner of the game helped convince the Taliban to accept the sport in 2000, a year before allied troops arrived. Cricket has certainly made the most of its head start.

Already part of the T20 World Cup furniture, Afghanistan made history in October 2013 by defeating Kenya to qualify for the Cricket World Cup for the first time. They will join Australia and England in Pool A at the 2015 tournament in Australia and New Zealand.

The victory sparked scenes of celebrations throughout the nation. More than 24,000 cricket fans gathered peacefully in Khost province to welcome their sporting heroes. In this video another side to Afghanistan is shown – one that is centred on unity, not war and destruction.

All levels of the sport are developing. This month saw the Under-19 team beat cricket powerhouse Australia in the ICC World Cup. After reaching the quarter-finals they were knocked out by another superpower South Africa.  Not bad for kids.

“Cricket in Afghanistan is more than a game, it is a tool for national unity and hope for youth in Afghanistan. Qualifying for the World Cup will give us a new sporting identity and we can prove we are a talented nation,” Noor Muhammad Murad told Al Jazeera English. 

While Afghanistan is a huge nation punctuated by clans and tribes, when a cricket bat or football is thrown into the mix, divisions are marked only by the team you fall on.

The CEO of the Afghanistan Rugby Federation, Asad Ziar, believes there are no limits to what sport can achieve in the country.

“Its intrinsic values such as teamwork, fairness, discipline and respect are understood all over the world and can be utilised in the advancement of solidarity and social cohesion,” Ziar told Al Jazeera English.

“There are no dangerous areas when it comes to spreading sport, in fact there is no sect or groups against the development of sports in any part of the country.”

With the ARF launching in 2011, rugby in one of the nation’s youngest sports. However, Ziar and his colleagues have already achieved an outstanding amount.

At the 2013 West Asia Rugby Sevens in Dubai, the Afghan Rugby team defeated the UAE and Lebanon. In a nation where travel is unfamiliar and difficult for many of its inhabitants, organising the trip to Dubai for his players was an impressive feat alone.

“I received hundreds of messages through cell phone, emails and social media from around the globe which really was a proud moment. We got the runner-up shield in this tournament and it was the first international victory by an Afghan team in the field of rugby,” said Ziar.

The female factor

In addition to developing the national team, and spreading the word of rugby around his nation, Ziar and the ARF have taken the bold decision of introducing rugby to girls.  

In June 2013, Ziar gathered 600 girls at a Kabul school and distributed leaflets about rugby before providing some introductory sessions.

Unsurprisingly, the cultural complications when it comes to developing women’s sport are a minefield.

“Promoting women’s rugby requires a lot more from us, since there are no private grounds for rugby yet and it is not possible that the women side should be trained in public,” says Ziar.

“We need secured and proper facilities for the development of women’s rugby. When we have these facilities we will start working on the development of a women’s team.”

It might surprise some that Afghanistan does have a women’s cricket and football team up and running. This is a huge (perhaps bigger than huge) development considering social factors and the infancy of competitive sport since Taliban rule.

Most of the players draw from the Afghan capital Kabul where there is a more liberal attitude towards women.

“We developed a women cricket development strategy in 2013. Training camps have been conducted in five provinces and we are planning to participate in the Asia Challenge Cup for the first time in our history,” said Noor Muhammad Murad.

One woman who has played a vital part in encouraging women to pick up bat and ball is Diana Barakzai. She is the cricket captain of the national team, a qualified ICC coach and the Women Cricket Development Manager of the Afghanistan Cricket Board.

“I got into cricket in 2009 because I wanted to bring Afghan women into the structure of cricket and sports,” Barakzai tells Al Jazeera English.

“The future of cricket is quite brilliant. If the resources are used properly for women’s cricket, it should have a good future.”

Another exciting development for Afghan sport is the planned introduction of cricket onto the school curriculum. If the Ministry of Education approves the new programme, the training of school teachers will begin in April 2014.

Physically strong and competitive-minded, there is no shortage of sporting talent in Afghanistan. However, the nation struggles from a lack of qualified coaches and sporting expertise. 

“The international sporting community has always helped the development of sport in Afghanistan but we are yet to witness an Afghan with graduate or postgraduate degree in the field of sport or sport development. I think for long-term development and strategies we need some professional Afghan sport development professionals,” says Rugby chief Ziar.

Considering the absence of sport from educational institutions and the turmoil of war, it is remarkable (or perhaps simply brilliant) how far Afghanistan sport has come over the last few years.

One can only hope peace and democracy blossom in a similar vein when NATO troops leave in 2015. Perhaps sport can help it to do so.

“I do not make judgments about an individual’s participation in the war, but simply hope to encourage young people to do something positive, fun and competitive, in the hope that they will avoid becoming part of the violence and avoid the temptation of drugs,” says Ziar.

“It is not just the sporting international community who should take an interest. If the international community as a whole want peace and stability in Afghanistan they must support the development of sport by any means they can.”

This article featured on the Al Jazeera English website. 

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Are the grand slams more open than ever?

Wawrinka cracks open champers - but has he cracked open ATP Tour?

In the late 1990s Swiss sensation Martina Hingis burst onto the grand slam scene at the tender age of 16. 

Despite her age, she notched up nine grand slams in a period of ruthless dominance. When Hingis lay down the racket in 2002, it wasn’t long before Roger Federer replaced her in the affections of Swiss tennis fans.

At the start of 2014, it seems Switzerland’s run of tennis success stories may not be over.

On Sunday Stanislas Wawrinka stepped out from Federer's shadow to become a grand slam winner.

Wawrinka’s first major win lifts him to world number three and above Federer in the rankings. But his triumph over Rafael Nadal is remarkable for many other reasons.

Firstly, few saw it coming. In grand slam tennis, only the brave and foolish back a player outside the big four.

This is for very good reason. For the last ten years, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have dominated the four slams. Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro was the last player outside the big four to win a grand slam at the 2009 U.S. Open.

There have been 16 grand slams, and over four years, between Del Potro and Wawrinka's victories.

Another reason the win will be remembered is the way Wawrinka blasted Nadal off the court during the first set. 

It was an achievement few players have managed and showed he had the best backhand in the game.

Unfortunately for Wawrinka, his feat comes with the sidestory of Nadal's injury in the second set.

Nadal said in his post-match press conference 'It is Stan's day' - but winning against an under-par opponent is rarely ignored in sport.

"It would be sad if there is an asterisk put against Wawrinka's name as Australian Open champion because of Rafael Nadal's injury," tennis commentator and sports writer Richard Evans told Al Jazeera.

"The Swiss who is obviously benefiting from the shrewd advice of coach Magnus Norman played brilliantly in the first set and, as things turned out, that was enough to win him the match.

"Wawrinka's mind was scrambled because it is very difficult to play an injured opponent in any match, let alone your first grand slam final. He got his head together again in the fourth set and thoroughly deserved his victory after putting out defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals."

Grinding it out on the ATP circuit for over 10 years, Wawrinka has left it late, at 28, to deliver his best.

The turning point came with the arrival of former world number two Magnus Norman to his team last year. Wawrinka went on to impress at the U.S. Open reaching the semi-finals and in under a year with his new coach has beaten Djokovic, Nadal and claimed his first grand slam. 

Wawrinka always had the ability but it seems Norman has given him the belief.

Open-ing Era?

Wawrinka's victory should also give belief to players outside the big four.

Early signs suggest they could all struggle this season. Roger Federer is not the spritely youth he once was, Andy Murray is returning from back surgery, Nadal is fighting a body prone to breakdown and Djokovic is getting to grips with new coach Boris Becker.

"Hiring Becker has surprised many, and raised a few eyebrows, especially as Djokovic was on an unbeaten streak from last year. It was his worse Australian Open performance in four years, his forehand looked erratic and he was getting riled - just like Becker did in his pomp," BBC sport reporter Simon Mundie comments.

"It seems strange for Djokovic to change a winning formula. And with Murray and Federer out of the top four - they are now going to bump into difficult players in the quarter-finals. It will not be easy for them to get back up the rankings."

These are all good signs for veterans Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych who are still without major wins, and youngsters Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic who are rising through the rankings.

Unpredictable times lie ahead for the men's game. And if Serena Williams doesn't return to her scintillating 2013 form, the same can be said for the WTA. Both male and women grand slams appear more open than ever.

Other than Williams, a consistent feature of the women's game has been the insignificance of age. Last season Serena became the oldest player to reach world number one at 31, and on Saturday 30-year old Li Na claimed her second grand slam victory.

"Li Na is one of the more remarkable stories in women's tennis. Having almost quit last summer the work she has done with Carlos Rodriguez since has contributed hugely to a second grand slam success", according to tennis broadcaster and former professional Nick Lester.

Defeating 24-year old Dominika Cibulkova convincingly in the final, China's popular star is now eyeing up more grand slam victories and her coach Rodriguez believes Li Na will go far at Wimbledon. 

With her victory speech revealing a fun and amiable personality, more grand slams for Li Na could be great for the women's game. The speech, which resembled a comedy stand-up at times, quickly went viral as she thanked her agent for 'making her rich' and her husband who she said 'is a very nice guy' and 'lucky to have found her.'

With two popular outsiders lifting the trophies in Melbourne - the first grand slam of the season has not disappointed.

Next up, the French Open - where Rafael Nadal is unbeatable. Or is he?