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Is this really equality?

It was announced today that Wimbledon will for the first time this summer offer the same prize money for female players as it does for the men.

So we now have parity in financial terms. But does this really represent true equality?

In modern times, there has always been a natural inequality at the four Grand Slam tournaments (Wimbledon, and the Australian, French and US Opens), by virtue of the fact that men’s matches are played to a best-of-five sets format, whereas the ladies play best-of-three. This means a one-sided ladies’ match can be over in 45 minutes – and rarely lasts more than two hours – whereas a men’s match can go on for four hours or more, and rarely lasts less than two hours.

Put another way, the winner of the women’s singles title at this year’s Wimbledon will play a maximum of 21 sets (and a minimum of 14) in the tournament, whereas the men’s champion will play a minimum of 21 (and a maximum of 35) to win the same prize money.

It’s not the fairest and most direct of comparisons, but one could say that this is equivalent to a women are being paid the same for a three-day week as their male counterparts are for a full five-day week.

In the workplace, there is certainly no reason why women should earn less than men. However, sport is another matter, where commercial drivers dictate the size of the prize. In virtually all other sports it is normal for female players to earn less (usually far less) than males. This is simply because interest in women’s football or golf or cricket is tiny compared to the men’s equivalents – and consequently attract smaller audiences and commercial revenue. For women’s tennis, this is emphatically not the case. Viewing figures for women’s tennis are comparable to men’s. And Maria Sharapova is every bit as popular and marketable as the likes of Roger Federer. So in the case of tennis, there is no overriding financial reason why women shouldn’t have the right to earn as much as the men.

So, the question is: why don’t women play best-of-five in the Grand Slams? Play the same amount as the men – earn the same amount as the men. It seems like a simple equation, doesn’t it?

After all, in many other sports, women compete over the same time-span as men: ladies’ golf tournaments are frequently played over 72 holes, women’s football matches last 90 minutes, and so on.

Historically, the biggest argument against five-set women’s tennis was the physical capability of women to play longer matches in tournaments. This may have been the case in the past – as it was in athletics as 30 years ago, where women could not compete in endurance events such as the 5,000 metres or marathon – but is not necessarily so today. Now, top players like Amelie Mauresmo or Venus Williams possess just as much strength and stamina as their male counterparts, in a way that was perhaps not the case 30 years ago.

So why don’t women play over five sets at Wimbledon? Or, at the very least, play the ladies’ final over the longer span?

It’s a question which has been argued circuitously (and inconclusively) by wiser and more knowledgeable minds than mine. But while I applaud the equality in prize money which Wimbledon has finally bowed to today, I find myself scratching my head at the inequality this appears to have created for the men’s game.

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Is the romance of Cup replays worth it?

A lot has been said in recent days about whether the current system of allowing FA Cup replays should continue, or be abolished to avoid potential fixture congestion for the big clubs.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was particularly vocal in his desire to do away with replays. From his perspective it is an understandable view, as Arsenal are still competing in four competitions, and are currently in the middle of a run where they must play two games a week for seven out of eight weeks – a big ask given the physical demands of the modern game, even allowing for the benefits of squad rotation.

Speaking more generally, the arguments in favour of one match cup ties are well known, and include:
– No need to squeeze a replay into already congested fixture schedules
– Discourages the away team from defensively playing for a draw (the “we’ll beat ’em at ours” strategy)
– A lower division side probably has a better chance of causing an upset in the lottery of a shootout than in a full replay
– Fans are rewarded for their attendance by the guarantee of seeing a result on the night
– Penalty shootouts are exciting
And so on and so on.

But there are arguments against as well, which support those who favour replays. As always in modern football, there is a financial case: a replay means extra ticket sales and extra revenue which can be particularly valuable to lower division sides.

And then there is the romantic one, which takes me back to my childhood. Between 1978 and 1980, Arsenal reached three consecutive FA Cup finals. Both the ’79 and ’80 Cup runs featured marathon ties that are no longer possible in the Cups.

1979, third round. Arsenal (losers of the previous year’s final) versus Sheffield Wednesday of the old third division. It took five matches covering 540 minutes of football to finally separate the teams, Arsenal winning the fourth replay 2-0 with goals from Frank Stapleton and Steve Gatting. Back in those days, you played the first match at one team’s home, then the first replay at the other, and then you went to a neutral venue. Three times an icy-cold Filbert Street was filled by the faithful fans of both sides. As an eight-year-old, I remember listening to the commentary on Radio 3 (there was no Five Live or live TV coverage back then!) and being completely caught up in the thrill of this seemingly never-ending tussle. Arsenal went on to beat Man U 3-2 in the final, having squandered a 2-0 lead in the last five minutes.

1980, semi-final. The longest FA Cup semi-final in history, spanning four matches. Arsenal finally overcame the mighty Liverpool 1-0, and we all felt our name was on the Cup, especially because we knew we only had to beat second division West Ham in the final. Oops. The semi was a thrilling and titanic struggle, but I can’t help but wonder how much it took out of the team. In the space of a few weeks, a promising league challenge faded quietly away, we lost the FA Cup final to a rare Trevor Brooking header and then an exhausted side lost the Cup Winners’ Cup final to Valencia on penalties. The FA Cup semi was one of the great battles of any FA Cup, but ultimately it cost Arsenal severely. However, that didn’t make it any less great as a spectacle.

We just don’t get these long, drawn-out Cup ties any more. That’s a shame in some ways, but in many others it is a good thing. And there ARE compensations to having a sudden-death format too. A few years back, Arsenal beat Rotherham in the Carling Cup after a shootout that totalled 22 penalties and included (successful) spot kicks by both goalies. Great stuff. And a hell of a lot better than having to trudge all the way back to watch a replay after what had been, quite frankly, a very poor game of football. Then there’s the 1994 World Cup final. Who could forget the great Roberto Baggio’s amateurish blast over the bar? Euro 96, with Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal. South Korea disposing of Italy in the 2002 World Cup by the same means. Great moments one and all.

So it’s not just a case of black and white, right and wrong. The current system is a product of the times; it has its good and bad points, but is it actually any better or worse? Or is it just different?

On balance, I think the system is about right. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss the romance which has largely disappeared from Cup football – and the absence of open-ended replays is a big part of that.

Much ado about nothing

Rafa Benitez took his Liverpool squad away to a training camp in Portugal last week and apparently there was an “altercation” between Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise, involving karaoke, a golf club and Riise’s legs.

So what?

It happens in all walks of life. Just because a group of people work together doesn’t automatically mean they’re all best mates. Different people have differing personalities, views and preferences. Mutual dislike or even open conflict between colleagues is commonplace in offices, factories and other workplaces up and down the country, and football clubs are no different. In fact, it’s surprising we don’t see more of this sort of incident when you consider the scale of the earnings and egos involved in top flight football.

So was it in any way a surprise that, given the opportunity to let their hair down in a relaxing environment and allowing themselves to partake of a low alcohol beer or ten, that an otherwise trivial disagreement bubbled over into something more? Not really. (Just think how many fights break out at lads’ nights out or on stag parties.)

And was anyone genuinely surprised that Craig Bellamy was central to the incident? A man who is to off-field trouble what a magnet is to iron filings? Again, no.

So he blew his top, biffed one of his team-mates, and has no doubt been severely reprimanded by his boss. It’s nothing you don’t see on any Friday night outside a pub. Bellamy is a young man who has, shall we say, anger management issues which he needs to work on. But he has hardly committed a capital offence, and it’s only because he is a highly-paid and often controversial footballer that this incident has attracted such media attention.

It’s done, and in the greater scheme of things it will soon be forgotten. Time to move on.

Say hello, wave goodbye

In many respects, boxing is the most basic – certainly the most visceral – of all sports. In no other sport is the ultimate objective so naked: to physically dominate your opponent, ideally beating them senseless. And in no other sport can a single defeat be so catastrophic. A football team can lose a match one week, but if they win handsomely the following week all is well again. But for a big-name boxer to lose a major bout is tantamount to disaster; it always damages their reputation, and can often stop a career dead in its tracks.

Conversely, a big win is everything. Emotionally, it is an affirmation of status or of great potential. Financially, it can be obscenely rewarding. And pragmatically, one (literally) lives to fight another day.

Boxing regularly shows us either side of the coin: triumph or disaster. On Saturday night we saw both, on the same card at Wembley.

The end of the line for Audley?

Audley Harrison exploded into the UK consciousness as an amateur, thanks to his gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

He quickly turned professional, proclaiming himself a future world champion. After 14 consecutive but largely unconvincing victories against opponents who were heavyweight in category but distinctly lightweight by reputation, he finally fought for and won the lightly regarded WBF title (effectively boxing’s equivalent of the Carling Cup).

Nominally, he had delivered on his promise. In practice, he had done little to shake the “Fraudley” tag attached to him by his critics, each successive bout cementing a reputation for talking a far better game than he produced in the ring. Meanwhile, Harrison continued to cite his undefeated record and remind everyone he was, factually, a world champion.

As the saying goes: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Having successfully ducked the heavyweight division’s big names, Harrison finally agreed to fight British rival and Commonwealth champion Danny Williams – and promptly lost, effectively killing his prospects of a more lucrative title bout.

And on Saturday night, Harrison was knocked out inside three rounds by European champion Michael Sprott. It was his third defeat in five fights in 14 months, and surely the final curtain. In any other sport, a career record of 21 wins to three defeats would be considered exceptional; in boxing, it signifies more “chump” than “champ”. It seems that history will remember Audley Harrison as a man who was a good boxer, but never a great one – and after this weekend’s defeat, it seems this is exactly where his career now resides: history.

Amir marches on

Like Harrison, Amir Khan emerged into the public consciousness thanks to his exploits at the Olympics, winning a silver medal in the lightweight division in 2004, aged just 17.

On Saturday night he recorded his eleventh straight win as a pro – and seventh by knockout – beating Frenchman Mohammed Medjadi in just 55 seconds. He’s still only 20.

Whereas Harrison was the heavyweight with the lightweight reputation, Khan is very much the reverse. He is an exciting fighter, well liked by the media and public, and his career is very much on an upward trajectory. He is yet to compete for a world title, but this is a realistic prospect in the next 12 months if he continues his carefully-managed development.

What separates Khan from Harrison? Both emerged from the Olympics as promising amateurs. Both won their first 11 fights. And yet the young Bolton lad is cherished in a way which Harrison always aspired to, but never was.

There is a feeling that Amir Khan possesses that intangible X factor, a sprinkling of pixie dust which Harrison always lacked. Certainly he has consistently fought as good a game as he talks – a key difference to Harrison. Whether Khan will fully deliver on his potential remains to be seen, but it promises to be a thrilling tale.

The fact that the pair’s careers crossed and then passed in opposite directions on Saturday night – Khan’s rapid-fire win serving as a neat counterpoint to the demise of the plodding Harrison – is just one of those bonuses which sport delights in throwing up.

90 minutes of tedium

FA Cup 5th round – Arsenal 0 Blackburn 0

I’ve just got home from this drab and dismal game at the Emirates Stadium, having paid £49 for the somewhat dubious privilege of my seat at the top of the Upper Tier.

Passionless. Half-asleep. Lacking intensity.

And that was just the crowd.

Soapbox time. When I go to games, I usually sit behind one of the goals. Today, we had seats on the halfway line; the view was great, but the atmosphere was virtually non-existent. While the fans at the north and south ends behind each goal did their bit to cheer the team on, around us was stony silence. Now I’m not exactly the sort to start the singing, but I’m more than happy to join in given the opportunity (I’m a loud singer, but let’s just say I won’t be winning Pop Idol any time soon). Today, it felt like the three of us – my brother Peter, Heather and I – were all but alone in opening our mouths in our section of the stand.

Very disappointing. Even the dullest of games can be livened up with some crowd participation; today we didn’t even get that. You can see how Highbury got its reputation as “The Library” due to the quietness of its fans.

I have very little to say about the game itself. Blackburn created the grand total of ZERO meaningful shots; we were little better, until the final five minutes, when Brad Friedel produced three top-class saves in quick succession (something he has a habit of doing against us).

Nil-nil was about right in the end. Although Arsenal were by far the better team, nobody really deserved to win. The lack of urgency on both sides was curious, given that a replay was the last thing either team wanted – we both have fixture schedules filled to bursting, with European games prominent this month.

Just about the most positive thing I can say is that it’s not the worst game I’ve ever seen live – there is a special place in my chamber of horrors for a goalless League Cup draw against Liverpool about 20 years ago which didn’t provide a meaningful shot on goal – by either side – in 90 minutes plus a further 30 of extra time.

With hindsight, I guess there was an inevitability about it all. Like us, Blackburn were depleted in strength. We had Gallas and Ljungberg both trying to find their way back to sharpness. And, perhaps most importantly, was the fact we were coming off the back of a big emotional win at Bolton, and with two big, big games – PSV in the Champions League and the Carling Cup final – to come in the next eight days.

Oh well. That’s just how life is as a football fan. For every classic thriller or 5-0 hammering, there are half a dozen mediocre games and then the occasional truly awful match like today. I’ve learned to take the rough with the smooth.

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