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Interview with Rory McIlroy

This article appeared in Hong Kong Tatler

If Rory McIlroy is feeling the pressure of being golf’s hottest young property since Tiger Woods first emerged on the scene, he is not showing it. The 22-year-old has come a very long way in rather a short space of time – quite literally in the case of his participation in last month’s Shui On Land China Golf Challenge, a seven-day whistle-stop tour of seven Chinese golf courses, including Caesars in Macau, but also in terms of his own bigger picture.

Little over four years ago McIlroy was still an amateur. Nowadays he’s the youngest winner of the US Open in almost a century – in June he wiped the floor with the field at Congressional Country Club in Maryland – and is currently being afforded all the fuss befitting that accomplishment, by sponsors, fans, media and tournament organisers alike.

It has been a good year for him, but it’s not one that’s about to fizzle out quietly. The McIlroy brand has been undergoing some serious exposure and there’s plenty more of it to come before 2011 is through, with commitments in Asia – including the Hong Kong Open at the beginning of December – dominating a heavy schedule.

And so one cannot but be struck by the diminutive Northern Irishman’s chirpiness as he bounds into a room overlooking a neon Macau evening to meet Tatler. He’s spent the last hour or so shaking hands with various people in suits in the lobby of the Venetian and charming inquisitors at a packed media conference. How’s that part of life among golf’s elite working out, then?

“Things have calmed down a little bit,” he insists. “The first tournament I played after winning the US Open was the British Open and I probably just wasn’t quite ready for the welcome I received, the attention, the hype and everything. Winning one of the majors at 22 – not a lot of golfers have done that. I think Seve [Ballesteros] won one at 22, as did Jack [Nicklaus], so that’s a nice bit of company. It does bring its own pressures and attention, but I feel as if I’ve adjusted to that now. For me, it’s actually nice to get on a golf course because you sort of get away from everything else. It’s where I feel most at home.”

Not that he is afforded too many opportunities to play the links courses of his native land this weather. After the week in China, he was due to fly to Bermuda for the Grand Slam of Golf, a showcase involving only the year’s four major winners – of which group this year, astonishingly, two others (Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke), also hail from Northern Ireland. This month he will play at the World Golf Championship in Shanghai, then at the strokeplay World Cup of Golf at Mission Hills Haikou in Hainan – where he will partner McDowell – and after Hong Kong he has further engagements in Dubai and Thailand.

“It’s important for the development of the game in Asia that there are now so many big tournaments,” he says. “In China, golf is going to become so big, partly because of its inclusion at the Olympics in 2016. The point of doing the China Golf Challenge was to help promote the game here, and for the outside world as well, to showcase what China has to offer in golf. There are some really fantastic courses.”

The notion of establishing a fifth golf major, to be played in Asia, has been mooted recently. McIlory is sceptical about it happening any time soon, but says: “I think it’s good that there are now so many events co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours. You even see the PGA Tour now moving into Asia – they have a tournament in Malaysia and are trying to branch out in this market. Personally I love playing golf in this part of the world.”

In fact, he claims to reserve special affection for Hong Kong, where he was beaten in a play-off in 2008 by Lin Wen-tang. “I played a couple of events as an amateur in Hong Kong and now the Hong Kong Open is probably one of my favourite events of the year,” he says. “And because I keep coming back, I get to know it better every time – restaurants that I like, places to go.”

Life on tour, he acknowledges, is not always conducive to letting down his considerable head of hair or sampling local cultures, but there is a sense that for all his determination to succeed on the golf course – he talks of becoming the best player in the world in the next three years – McIlroy is out to enjoy life along the way. Currently that involves making time for his new girlfriend, the world No.1-ranked tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, with whom he plans to spend a fortnight in the Maldives this month between tournaments. You might be forgiven for suspecting the sponsors of hijacking Cupid’s bow, but it’s clear the pair have no wish to parade themselves as some kind of sporting power couple.

“We have very similar lifestyles, so I think we understand one another more than anything else,” McIlroy says. “If I shoot a bad score, I feel as if she knows what to say. And you know what she would like to hear if she has a bad result. We’re both working hard to be the best in our sport, but you have to some sort of life outside that.”

If he needs a pep talk from a fellow golfer, on the other hand, McIlroy need only turn to the greatest of them all. Jack Nicklaus, who went on to win 17 more majors after his first fresh-faced triumph in 1962, has invited him to spend the beginning of next year practicing at his club in Florida. McIlroy has already proven his lack of physical stature to be no hindrance to his game, but perhaps there is still something to be said for standing on the shoulders of giants.

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Villas Boas – the new Sir Bobby

This article appeared in The Herald

Liverpool re-hiring Kenny Dalglish was described as a gamble. Rangers promoting Ally McCoist, their assistant these last four years, is explained in similar language. But few gambles in football seem on the face of matters as speculative as the punt taken on one Andre Villas Boas by Porto last summer.

His name was barely familiar even to his countrymen. He was 32, an age at which most players are still coming to terms with the idea that they are “experienced”. And, in fact, he had never actually been a footballer. For anyone.

There have been others who’ve been given their chance at managing big clubs without ever having played on any grand stage – Arsene Wenger is one who springs to mind – but usually there is a requirement to work one’s ticket in the lower divisions. Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, however, is a man who knows his own mind. The Porto president handed a spiky young Jose Mourinho his first major appointment and did not live to regret it; Villas Boas was, similarly, his personal choice to succeed Jesualdo Ferreira.

Once again he has been vindicated. Porto host Spartak Moscow in the first leg of a Europa League quarter-final tonight having eliminated CSKA in the last round and fresh from clinching the Liga Sagres title with a 2-1 win at Benfica on Sunday. Before they took that punt on Dalglish, Liverpool were sniffing around Villas Boas; more recently Roma were rebuffed. The Porto native – a supporter of the club as a boy – has made it clear he wants to guide them into the Champions League next season.

So far, so much a case of Mourinho Mark II. And Villas Boas’ relationship to the “Special One” seems almost umbilical. Before taking over at bottom-of-the-league Academica in October 2009 – from which position he led them to a safe 11th place – he spent years working under the current Real Madrid manager, first at Porto, then at Chelsea, and then at Inter Milan.

The younger man has been keen to downplay this relationship, however. Rumours that his split from Mourinho 18 months ago was an acrimonious one may or may not be well-founded, but he has at times seemed annoyed at attempts to paint him as some kind of De Niro to his master’s Brando. “I am not a clone of anyone,” he has said. “I want to leave my mark on this club. We do not have the same character and personality. We communicate and work differently.”

“He’s very insistent that he’s not the new Mourinho,” the editor of the Portugoal football website, Tom Kundert, told Herald Sport. “He was in fact originally taken on at Porto by Bobby Robson and he is quoted as saying that he sees himself more as Robson’s successor. He said ‘I have English ancestry (his late grandmother was from Manchester), a big nose and I like drinking wine.'”

The story of Villas Boas’ conscription by the late Robson might well be the stuff of a Hollywood yarn. As a teenager he lived in the same building as Robson – who coached Porto from 1994-96 – and harassed the latter into reading some of his meticulous scouting reports on the team’s next opponents. The former England manager was impressed enough to offer the precocious youngster a role within the club’s observation department.

At 17, he achieved his UEFA C coaching licence in Scotland before, aged 21, becoming head coach of the British Virgin Islands. When Pinto da Costa appointed Mourinho in 2002, the latter brought Villas Boas in as an assistant, and so began his higher education in the managerial arts.

It would not be accurate to suggest the new Porto coach has simply transplanted Mourinho’s template, however. Like Mourinho he is adept at motivating players and impeccably organised, but there are major tactical differences: like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Villas Boas’ Porto play high pressure, passing football; his is a more fluid 4-3-3 than Mourinho’s was at Chelsea, with the wingers frequently becoming strikers.
“Where Mourinho is results driven and therefore traditionally quite defensive, Villas Boas gives his players a lot of licence,” says Kundert. “At the same time they lose very few goals. Tactically he has to be given credit.”

In the last four years, Porto have lost the likes of Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles, Lucho Gonzalez, Lisandro Lopez, Ricardo Quaresma, Jose Bosingwa, Pepe and Anderson. Benfica, meanwhile, looked a much stronger side than their domestic rivals this season: Luisao, Fabio Coentrao, Javi Garcia, Gaitan and Saviola would all walk into Villas Boas’ team.

In such circumstances, any manager who can put out a side as ruthless and tactically superior as the current Porto is bound to have Europe’s elite clubs taking note. He may not be able to keep him forever, but Pinto da Costa’s gamble has paid off. The risks for future suitors are beginning to seem negligible.


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Poetry, war and bicycles

This article appeared in the magazine Metropolitan

It is the first Sunday in April, 2009, and my train has chuntered out of Brussels, bound for East Flanders. Ghent, famed for its immaculately-preserved medieval architecture, is less than an hour to the north, but my destination is the lesser-known hilly area to the south of the region – the Flemish Ardennes – home to the “hellingen” which provide the dramatic setting for the cobbled classic cycle races run in Flanders each Spring.

In professional cycling, cobbles are to these “Classics” what the high mountain passes of the Pyrenees and the Alps are to the Tour de France. It is on these sections of the course that the ambitions of the few are realised, the hopes of many are crushed and, in such short, steep climbs as the famous Koppenberg, near the town of Oudenaarde, that thousands fervently line the route to experience the thrill of the race as it hurtles past.

Where the colour, celebrity and scale of the Tour de France lend it a glorious, epic glamour, the grittiness of the so-called “northern” Classics has a fascination all of its own. The Paris-Roubaix race – run over an unrelenting series of punishing cobbled farm tracks in northern France – is considered the “Queen of the Classics”, but is preceded in late March and early April each year by the Vlaamse Wielerweek (Flemish cycling week).

This festival of racing includes the Classic Ghent-Wevelgem, which features the ascent and terrifying descent of the famous Kemmelberg climb, and the “Three Days of De Panne” stage race in West Flanders. But the highlight, and the race which brings all of Flanders to a standstill, is the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).

“You can either ride the cobbles or you can’t”, says Barry Hoban, an Englishman whose successes in the 1960s and 70s endeared him to Flandrians to such an extent that he became known as The Gent of Ghent. “Some guys are terrified of them. You have to ride them hard and fast and take whatever the weather throws at you. I’ve ridden Paris-Roubaix in snowstorms and I’ve ridden it in a heatwave. And when it’s hot and dry it’s worse because the dust gets up and your eyes are red for about three days afterwards.”

As someone who “hit the north” as an outsider, Hoban – whose results included victory in Gent-Wevelgem, third in Paris-Roubaix and fifth in the Ronde – is well-placed to comment on what distinguishes the culture of cycling there. “As a young man, I left West Yorkshire – a hard-grafting, coal-mining area – and moved to northern France and lived among hard-grafting, coal-mining people there,” recalls the 71-year-old.

“The only difference was the language and the fact that they loved cycling, because the people were exactly the same. I lived first in Bethune (in France) and later in Ghent, and at that time there were very few English-speaking riders. But I didn’t feel out of place. I learned French and Flemish and just immersed myself in it. People took me to their hearts as one of their own.”

Hoban describes his Ghent-Wevelgem win in 1974 as being as special as his Tour de France stage wins. “In that race I beat everyone, all of the guys from that great generation of Belgian cyclists: Eddy Merckx was second, Roger de Vlaeminck was third. [Walter] Godefroot, Freddy Maertens were both there. I beat them all, I beat the hierarchy of Belgium. It was good.”

He also remembers losing out against Merckx, probably the greatest cyclist of all time, when they hit the “muur” together in the 1969 Ronde. Muur means “wall” in Dutch, and the Muur van Geraardsbergen, with its half-kilometre cobbled section, scaling upwards at a gradient of up to 20% to the iconic Chapel of Our Lady at its summit, often proves the decisive battleground at the head of the race. The latter half of the Ronde features more than a dozen similar hellingen, but because the Muur comes after 250km of racing – only 17km from the finish in Ninove – those not reaching the chapel with the leaders have no chance of contesting the win.

My train into Geraardsbergen – one of the oldest “cities” in Europe, but now a modestly-sized municipality – is not busy. Few, it seems, travel from metropolitan, cosmopolitan Brussels to watch this race. But as I reach the main street leading up to the town square, I realise the party is already in full swing. It is a bright, sunny day, warm for April, and old and young mingle together in the square’s packed bars and restaurants.

The race passes through the square and it is just before it that the Muur begins in earnest, albeit the cobbled section isn’t for another half kilometre. Past the square the road swings upwards and left, and several thousand fans are packed in along the wide boulevard.

The riders are still more than 40 minutes away, but already a decisive break has formed. The biggest name in Belgian cycling, and two-time winner of the race, Tom Boonen, has missed it, but last year’s winner, the Flandrian Stijn Devolder, is present. There are black and yellow Lion of Flanders flags everywhere.

I head further on up the hill. At the end of Oudebergstraate a cobbled lane narrows and steepens, making its way up through a wooded section and round a hairpin bend which kicks up again to the Chapel at the top. This is the heart of the Muur, where the toughest riders create the fractional gaps that can quickly lengthen into decisive ten or 20 second leads. All the way up, on both sides of the road, people are tucked into the embankment, holding on to the branches of trees to stop themselves falling on to the road. Some have been there for hours, waiting like snipers for a Boonen, Devolder or Lief Hoste to pass by inches in front of them. Waiting, I discover, to unleash their noise on the Ronde.

Among the crowd the orange of visiting Dutch fans is visible; a few English voices can be heard; and a fan club of Italians is vocalising its support for the young up-and-coming Italian rider Marco Bandiera. But though the appeal of the race is international, its identity is distinctly Flandrian: the majority of the spectators are behind the local riders and chants of “Sti -jn – Devolder” ring out.

“When you’re a kid and you take up cycling you dream of making it to the Muur van Geraardsbergen in first place,” is how Boonen, a native Flandrian, explains the passion and frenzy. “Belgians grow up with cycling in their hearts. It’s ingrained in our culture like football in Italy or skiing in Austria. [The Ronde] has always been part of my life, ever since I was a kid and would watch the race on television. It’s my country’s race and it’s where I had my first great victory in a Classic [in 2005]. It was an unforgettable moment. When I crossed the finish line in front of thousands of supporters screaming my name it was like living a dream.”

As I squeeze into a spot just below the chapel, the scene is a flurry of nervous activity. Some have radios pressed to their ears and I catch the names Devolder, Boonen, Gilbert and Chavanel at various intervals. A man, fuelled by strong beer and sensing a captive audience, decides to break the tension by performing a dance with his trousers at his ankles, much to the delight of his peers.

And then the television helicopter is sighted overhead. A new expectation fills the air: the race is near, the distant roar of crowds further down the road can be heard, and as the volume increases men, women, children, even dogs strain their eyes on the road. People know Devolder and the Frenchman Chavanel are up there, and they know that Boonen hasn’t made it. A flash of colour is sighted through a chicane in the road, and the crowd slowly recognises it is one rider on his own. It is Devolder.

An ecstasy fills the air. Men roar and women shriek as he rounds the bend at the top of the Muur in a flash, sweat glistening over his muscles in the sunlight, a grimace of pain etched on his face. And his effort is not in vain: he crests the summit with a gap of some ten seconds on his pursuers and by the time he reaches Ninove it is almost a minute.

I eventually make my way back to the square, where a full-scale celebration is underway. Assuming it to be a Flandrian beer, I order an Orval, and am chided for it by a local man, who explains to me that it is, in fact, from the French-speaking Walloonian south. And maybe he is right to chide: maybe the passion and parochiality of Vlaamse Wielerweek is what gives it its distinctiveness, its enduring appeal in a world in which sport is becoming ever-more globalised and commercialised. “It’s poetry and war at the same time,” Boonen tells me. “This sport is like religion to us.”


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Australian Open diary

These entries appeared in The Herald

Monday 17/01/11

JOURNEY time to Melbourne (owing to an almighty cock-up at Heathrow): almost two days. Luggage: lost. Weather on arrival: frankly Scottish. Poise regained with the help of a few drinks your diarist faced up to the facts – even if offered a late wild card for this year’s Australian Open a distinct lack of freshness would put accepting it out of the question.

MELBOURNE’S Herald Sun newspaper yesterday demanded of a cross-section of local people to know who is the hottest female tennis star. No doubt everyone has their own thoughts on this important matter, but certainly tennis fans will be pleased to learn that the press corps takes the subject seriously on their behalf. At Maria Sharapova’s press conference here the other day, a hairy-looking Kiwi fellow piped up with the question: “Do you and Anna Kournikova have a hot Russians club where you get together?” Her response: “You’re the guy from New Zealand, huh? Oh God, you’re stalking me.”

ANDY Murray has to contend with his own stalking horses. One hack was very interested on Saturday to know whether Murray had enjoyed watching the Ashes, whether he would be inspired by England’s plucky example on Australian soil, whether he would be popping over the road to the MCG to watch the lads play in the One Day International. And so on and so forth. To all of which he replied that for most of the duration of the Ashes series he was in Miami, where (I’m paraphrasing) it is widely known that there is no such thing as cricket. Not the platitudes the English scribblers were looking for, I suspect.

THE police have announced they won’t be standing for any nonsense from fans bent on causing trouble at Melbourne Park this year. The last three Australian Opens have seen flares thrown, drunkenness and even mass brawls. Now Serb, Croat and Greek visitors are to be put under close surveillance. Which seems a bit rich, and somewhat akin to blaming Chelsea fans any time there’s trouble in the football grounds of Europe. After all, isn’t most of Australian sport predicated on violence anyway?

ON the subject of trouble and its making, I note that one Oksana Kalashnikova of Russia did not make it through qualifying.

Tuesday 18/01/11

IT is hard not to like Elena Baltacha. A set down to Jamie Hampton of the US and toiling slightly in the second yesterday she responded to a call in her favour – after several agin her – with a sarcastic “thank you” to the umpire. After which point she proceeded to break Hampton’s serve and close out the set, before rattling her way through the third to win. The Americans, as the saying goes, were not liking it up ’em.

VENUS Williams has taken to wearing “flesh-toned” underwear on-court. Maria Sharapova likes to talk about going to the shops. There is a large hairy man here at Melbourne Park, introduced to readers of this diary yesterday, who likes to make the stars of the WTA feel a bit uncomfortable in press conferences. Yes, indeed, the case of the Kiwi stalker continues. Attired somewhat in the manner of Jack Black in School of Rock, he was on hand after Sharapova’s match yesterday to ask whether she had had problems with stalkers before. “Not until you, no,” replied the Russian. “I don’t know why you’re here today. That shouldn’t have happened.”

THE poor fellow should perhaps seek lessons from Novak Djokovic. During the benefit match for victims of the Queensland floods on Sunday the Serbian “Djoker” at one stage hopped it into the photographers’ pit, grabbed himself a camera and set about snapping away at Caroline Wozniacki. “This is going to be in the English Sun,” he informed her, adding “I can see a lot more than you think.” Good grief.

THE toilets in the bowels of the Rod Laver Arena are equipped with boxes, apparently for the safe disposal of “used syringes”. I have yet to ascertain whether they are intended for tennis players or journalists.

IT is always good to see children put to good use. At the slightest hint of a drizzle at Melbourne Park, the ball boys and girls are sent out on court to dry off the surface. With towels. Generally once the task is completed there is cheering from the audience – but one is never sure whether it is the industry of the kiddies or the genius of Australian organisation that is being applauded.

Wednesday 19/01/11

NATURE abhors a vacuum. Just when you thought maybe a Grand Slam without Serena Williams might also be short on bragadaccio, epic self-regard and David Brent-style monologues, her sister returns from injury to try out for the part of sorority princess all on her own. Yesterday we heard rather a lot from Venus about the zipper on her dress, her book (the title of which, Come To Win: Business Leaders, Artists, Doctors and Other Visionaries on How Sports Can Help You Top Your Profession is probably long enough for me to have just single-handedly lost this sports section most of its readers for good), and how she wants to get into interior design and business development next. You just wonder what Serena will have up her sleeve when she returns from her sore foot. A cure for cancer?

NOVAK Djokovic claims Serb and Croat players are the very best of friends off court. The same cannot be said of Balkan ex-pats here in Melbourne. Past years have seen mass brawls between fans of Serb and Croat allegiance, with Aussie police weighing in with batons to separate them. Think West Ham v Millwall on centre court at Wimbledon and you’re getting close. When Djokovic faces Croatia’s Ivan Dodig today, your intrepid diarist may well decide he has a pressing engagement on one of the outside courts.

PEOPLE wishing to become Australian citizens are graded according to occupation. There hasn’t been an Australian winner in the women’s event at this Open for 33 years, so you’d imagine tennis players might be ranked up there alongside important vocations like medic, sandwich-maker and so on. Not so. Russian-born Arina Rodionova, sister of naturalised Australian Anastasia Rodionova and much-admired by tennis beaks here, has been denied citizenship. In fact, a letter from the immigration authorities informed her she was “not the same calibre as [her] sister.” Ouch.

JAMIE Murray, who recently married, has always been popular with the ladies, but it seems he also has his eye in for birds of the feathered variety. Apparently some poor winged blighter got itself in the way of a wayward Murray shot during practice the other day and paid the ultimate price. It is with no small degree of dramatic irony that the incident has been reported on Twitter.

Thursday 20/01/11

“OHHH la la. Mon dieu! Woweee, what kind of shot this is?! Heeheehee, oh my god!!!” One is never entirely sure when listening to the commentary of Henri Leconte for Channel 7, the Australian sports channel, whether the Frenchman has been shot, stuck in the posterior with a hot poker or merely shown a racy photo of Carla Bruni.

IT may not have escaped your notice that many women tennis players are similarly opprobrious to the ear. Now an Australian scientist has explained that they are justified in braying like jackals every time they hit the ball as this increases the force of their shot, or something. What’s more he is offering to give them opera training to make their shrieking and grunting even louder. In separate news, the cast of the hit musical Hairspray are to perform at next Saturday’s women’s final. Before protesting about all this bedlam, however, it is worth putting things in perspective: at least we will be spared Cliff Richards getting up for a warble.

ANDY RODDICK, ever a forthright sort of chap, yesterday summed up Tuesday night’s five-set slogging match between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian more eloquently than any of the world’s sports hacks could attain to in all their surging torrents of heady prose. His verdict: “I fell asleep during the third set.”

ASKED about what has changed on the men’s tour in recent years with the swing towards European dominance and simultaneous slump in American fortunes, Roddick also offered this nugget: “If there are more Italians and French people, they will be speaking more Italian and French.” Needless to say there is truth in this, but if one looks at the world rankings it is clear that while there are four Americans in the top 50, there is only one Italian: world No.48 Potito Starace. Go figure, as they never tire of saying in the US.

Friday 21/01/11

PEOPLE seem to have grown tired of the Maria Sharapova “stalker” saga. Not least the stalker himself, James McOnie, the TV reporter from New Zealand whose show The Crowd Goes Wild is, sources tell me, wacky, and who, you may recall from previous diary entries has been asking Miss Sharapova in press conferences about what she and Anna Kournikova get up to in their spare time, declaring his love for her, and so on. Conspiracy theorists among you may suspect FSB involvement, but the official word is that McOnie has gone home.

BILLY CONNOLLY, who is fond of toilet humour, was at Melbourne Park to watch the tennis yesterday. No doubt he is hardly able to control his mirth when players have to take toilet breaks, but for some they are no laughing matter. Britian’s Anne Keovathong was ahead by a set the other day when her opponent Andrea Petkovic took herself off for a little private meditation in the “dunnies”, as Australians term their lavatories. The Serbian then came back out and won 2-6 7-5 6-0. “I can’t control what my opponent does,” said Keovathong magnanimously, but surely it is not asking too much of people to go before they are due on court.

SPORTSWRITERS occasionally find themselves falling foul of the PR interests of powerful clubs or associations, not least in Scotland. Accusations of bias or inaccuracy are wont to plague journalists who go “off message”. But perhaps we should be thankful that not everyone is as litigious as Ron Gauci, CEO of Australian Rugby League club Melbourne Storm, who is currently threatening to sue a tram driver for defamation over comments he posted on a social networking website to the effect Gauci is a “puppet” for Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd, Storm’s owner.

ROGER FEDERER claimed to enjoy being taken to five sets by Gilles Simon the other night. Of course, you’d never expect him to admit he was bricking himself at the prospect of a second-round exit, but one cannot but question his take on what is still a 2-1 head-to-head record in the Frenchman’s favour. “Well, the thing against Gilles, victory is in my racquet because I’m the aggressor,” he said. “[Against him] I’m in control if I’m going to win or lose.” Eh?

Saturday 22/01/11

THE man who ghosts Andy Murray’s column for The Australian newspaper is known to his friends as “The Cuddler”. He has also had a stinking cold all week. Should Murray succumb to the sniffles at some point at this Open, you’ll know who to blame, then.

PEOPLE with money to burn deserve it because they’re never done taking risks, or so the City of London would have you believe. But certainly there was an element of derring-do about the guy who stuck A$2.5m on Rafael Nadal to beat US qualifier Ryan Sweeting on Thurday. When Nadal fulfilled his end of the bargain, the generous punter donated his A$25,000 profit to the Queensland flood relief fund. All well and good, but some people are asking why he did not simply make the donation in the first instance. Which may be why he has A$2.5m to place on a bet and they do not. Had Rafa actually lost, though…

KIM Clijsters had a bone to pick with her on-court interviewer, the former Aussie tennis player Todd Woodbridge, after beating Spain’s Suarez Navarro the other night. The issue stemmed from a text message Woodbridge sent to the former world No.1 doubles player Rennae Stubbs during last week’s Sydney International. “It said you thought I was pregnant,” Clijsters announced, adding as Woodbridge went crimson, “You said ‘she looks grumpy and her boobs are bigger’.” Oo err missus.

AT six foot, four and a half inches, Australia’s Bernard Tomic is not what you would call a wee boy. But he is not even sure whether he has stopped growing, which, as everyone knows, can be a tiring business. In last year’s Australian Open the young tyro lost in five second round sets to Marin Cilic then complained about the match having gone on well past his bedtime. Now 18, he is through to the third round of this year’s tournament and faces Rafa Nadal in today’s evening session at Melbourne Park. But Tomic has again voiced misgivings about the assignment, revealing that he generally likes to get his head down before 10pm. One hesitates to encourage athletes to drink fizzy juice, but a bottle of Irn Bru would surely be the correct tonic in this instance.

Monday 24/01/11

FOLLOWING Jamie Murray’s Reaper-like scything down of an unsuspecting sparrow while practising his serve last week, Caroline Wozniacki announced yesterday that she had been attacked by a baby kangaroo in a Melbourne park on Saturday. Seeing the poor beast lying on the ground, the Dane approached it, she told concerned journalists, the friar of Assisi’s very spirit coursing through her veins. Whereupon it scratched her on the shin. “As I went over, it just started to be aggressive and it actually cut me,” she said. “I was going to be nice and try to help it. But I learned my lesson and I just started running away.”

WOZNIACKI’S distressing tale confirmed in me the view that human charity is all too often wasted on animals. Had she only found me lying down in a park, I told myself, her charms would not have been so cruelly resisted. But these reflections were about to prove premature: by and by the press conference was recalled, so that the world No.1 could tell us she had made the story up and felt bad for lying. She had, in fact, sustained the cut on her leg by walking into a treadmill. “I made it up because it sounded better than what actually happened,” she said. “I was like, okay, we’re in Australia, so a kangaroo scratched me.” If there is a lesson in all of this, I don’t know what it is. The New York Times has decided Wozniacki is “wacky”. Which makes the Williams sisters what, exactly?

THERE were frayed tempers in evidence on court here on Saturday, when the Indian doubles duo Mahesh Bupathi and Leander Paes put their hispanophone opponents, Feliciano Lopez of Spain and Argentina’s Juan Monaco to the sword. At the end, all four had to be separated at the net, with Paes claiming he had had a serve aimed at his head during the match. Seemingly Lopez in particular was annoyed at Paes’ repeated use of the Spanish phrase “vamos”, meaning “come on”. The more likely explanation is that Spaniards nowadays find it a strange and unnatural thing to lose.

ONE sometimes wonders what umpires think about, up there all on their own, during the quieter moments. Probably their tea, I think.

Tuesday 25/01/11

THERE was an eeyorish column in yesterday’s Melbourne Age, mainly about how life used to be better, but the sign-off, I think, captured the essence of everything that is civilising about tennis. “Give me a warm, still day, a few friends, no temper tantrums, no grunting, and a well-matched game of doubles,” demanded David Campbell. “That’s my idea of sporting heaven.”

WHO can stop Rafael Nadal? Maybe, just maybe, the International Tennis Federation. In a fascinating article in the magazine The Atlantic this month, Joshua S Speckman reports that scientists have finally been able to prove that the copolyester strings used by today’s players generate 20 per cent more spin that nylon string and 11 per cent more than natural gut. These differences explain how a muscular, top-spinning player like Nadal can generate twice as much spin as Andre Agassi did. Intriguingly, the only time the ITF has ever blocked a technological innovation in the sport was when, in 1978, it banned so-called “spaghetti strings”, which had produced a factor-of-two increase in spin. It is now believed copoly strings, in the hands of today’s players, can generate at least as much spin as spaghetti racquets.

THE Swiss are hard work sometimes. Where the Dane Caroline Wozniacki’s entertaining press conferences have stolen the show at this year’s Australian Open, at the other end of the scale is Stanislas Wawrinka. After beating Gael Monfils in the third round, he was asked to consider why Europeans were dominating the main draw. “I have no idea,” he replied. “Sorry. I have no idea why.” There were no follow-up questions.

ONE naturally sympathises with those who queued for up to three hours to spend $A7 per can of Heineken lager here at the weekend. In Scotland such duress would be enough to spark a riot, of course, but stiff penalties pertain to any and all instances of unruly or indeed drunken behaviour at this Grand Slam. How times have changed. Friends tell me that the old Melbourne Cricket Ground, just over the road from the tennis, used to sanction a Bring Your Own drink policy. At some point in the late 1980s, however, a new and Draconian ruling came into force – patrons were thenceforth restricted to a solitary crate of beer each.

Wednesday 26/01/11

ONE wishes Alexandr Dolgopolov well, wherever his career takes him from here. Like Boo Weekley in golf, the world No.49, who has taken this Australian Open by storm, admits he doesn’t really follow tennis when he’s not playing. “I don’t like to watch sports, I don’t even watch TV when I’m off the court,” he revealed the other day. “I just like to relax with my friends, drive my car [a Subaru, apparently].”

DOLGOPOLOV is so relaxed, indeed, that one day last week he was setting busily about a burger, chips and a can of Coke in the players’ canteen, when, as I understand it, he was beckoned over the Tannoy to report to Show Court Three for his match. He turned to his coach, Jack Reader, but seemingly the Australian hadn’t bothered to check the schedules either.

MAYBE sports nutrition is a load of old piffle after all. Usain Bolt lives on chicken nuggets, Wayne Rooney clearly exists on pies, now there is Dolgopolov and his hamburger lunch. And here, over the top, comes Andy Murray, toppling in a trice the whole corrupt edifice of hydration theory and a thousand pseudo-scientific dissertations with the war yodel: “I don’t drink much water any more. It’s not good for you.” It may be relevant to note that Murray is no longer sponsored by Highland Spring.

THERE are lots of characters on the ATP and WTA tours, sure there are. The Italian, Flavia Pennetta, for instance, who is like a swarthier Gordon Strachan. After losing to Petra Kvitova in the fourth round, she was addressed as follows: “You won the first set, what happened after that?” Pennetta: “She won the second and the third.”

YOU may or may not be aware that Show Court One at Melbourne Park is called Margaret Court Arena, after the former Australian world No.1, who in 1970 won all four grand slams in the same calendar year. So why not call it Margaret Court Court? When I put this probing line of inquiry to no less a personage than a Tennis Australia media officer, she looked at me as if I had just said something derogatory about Kylie Minogue’s bottom.

Thursday 27/01/11

YOU can travel just about anywhere in North America and find people who will tell you they are Scottish. There are, of course, many ties to the old sod in Australia as well, but generally Australians are busy enough feeling pleased about being Australian to bother much about that kind of thing. And so there is a degree of ambivalence towards Andy Murray here. One woman told me she thought he had a bit of an “attitude” and preferred “classier” players. But he also has his backers, some of them now even prepared to empty their wallets on him becoming champion. “All he needs to do is throw the ball up and think of England,” another local said. Hmm, well, whatever it takes.

AND then there was Rafael Nadal, genius, whom everyone loved, especially the women. Oh how they cooed at him when he spoke in his broken English or removed his shirt, happy to overlook his constant bottom-scratching. Which, in fact, calls to mind a story about James Joyce. When asked by a female admirer if she could shake the hand that wrote Ulysees, the old devil declined the request, explaining that it had done other things as well.

WHY is Nadal’s mother never seen at tournaments? Perhaps she is too embarrassing. “Ugly parent syndrome” as the Australians are calling it, has reared its head in Melbourne this year, with the WTA banning the father of French player Aravane Rezai from all future events pending an investigation into an alleged “incident” last week. Monsieur Rezai has previous form: in 2006 he was investigated after headbutting the father of another player and accidentally smacking his own daughter in the face with a racquet at Roland Garros.

ANOTHER man in the bad chair in Melbourne is the former Rangers defender Kevin Muscat. The blazers at the A-League are currently mulling over an appropriate sanction for the Melbourne Victory player in the wake of his season-ending tackle on Adrian Zahra of Melbourne Heart at the weekend. Even the Aussies are branding it thuggish, and they play something called Aussie Rules. At 37, his own playing career seems to be winding down in any case. Perhaps M. Rezai requires a henchman.

Friday 28/01/11

SO it’s college jocks (the Bryan brothers) v Indians (Leander Paes and Mahesh Bupathi) in the final of the men’s doubles. There is something nostalgic about Mike and Bob Bryan, their chest-bumping and their exceptional teeth and their 18 Grand Slam titles (together and in mixed doubles) recalling an era of American dominance and John McEnroe and Ronald Reagan. But they’re 32 now, the Bryans, so what will they do when the day comes to retire from tennis? Bob has a plan: he will send the wife out to work. “I’ll kick her in the butt and be a house husband,” he said yesterday.

IT is for their sensibility and great sense of humour that Americans are loved throughout the world. But one wonders if they mightn’t try a bit harder with the Australians, who are, after all, a proud bunch. What with it being Australia Day on Wednesday, ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert was made to try Vegemite on his sandwich. His reaction? “That’s god awful. There’s nothing good about that. That is horrific. I got to get some water – that is rough.”

WHO does Shane Warne think he is? Well, okay, he did take a total of 708 test wickets in a long cricketing career, but after his chat show was recently voted Australia’s worst TV programme (and that is an achievement in itself), the spin-bowling beefcake, whose giant face is currently pictured biting into a Big Mac on advertising hoardings all over the country, is now in a monumental huff with the Herald Sun newspaper, for whom he writes a column. On Tuesday the rag reported that he had turned up to the tennis on Monday night demanding VIP treatment for 14 of his poker buddies. Which vicious lies sent Warnie into a Tweeting fury. “Followers if you agree with me that the herald sun has lost reporting – fact and what the public wants to read then write or call them,” he posted yesterday. No doubt the paper’s mailbags are bulging with petitions of support as I write.

I HAVE a theory about why Sam Stosur was so rubbish at the Australian Open and it as follows: on one of her many TV commercials we learn that she dines on Healthy Choice frozen meals. Can they really be enough to sustain a top-level athlete?

Saturday 29/01/11

BEST answer to a stupid question of the fortnight comes from women’s finalist Li Na. Journalist: “Is it true you’re not a typical Chinese in the sense that you’re more extrovert? You like to have fun, make jokes, you’re not shy. I mean, many Chinese don’t talk that much.” Li Na: “Oh, yeah, maybe they couldn’t speak English so they didn’t know how to talk. Yeah, if you guys can’t speak Chinese, of course they can’t make a lot of jokes.”

ANDY Murray is known to punish himself for underperforming by wearing pink tops in training. However, that is as nothing to the depredations suffered by a young David Ferrer, his opponent in Melbourne last night. Javier Piles, who has coached Ferrer man and boy, revealed through the week how he took a firm line on indiscipline when his charge was a teenager. “When he didn’t want to work I would lock him up in a dark room of two-by-two metres,” Piles claims. “It was the room where we would store the tennis balls. I would tell him that his working schedule was from nine to 12 and that if he didn’t want to work he would remain there, punished. I would give him a piece of bread and a bottle of water through the bars of a small window.” I seem to think the NSPCC would have something to say about this kind of thing if it happened on our shores. Maybe we’ve gone soft.

WHAT do you say to a tennis player when you’ve run out of other questions? One American journalist here is obsessed with finding out how they may or may not have invested their prize money. I’m not sure if this is how Americans normally decide what to do with their money, but if so it might help to explain how their economy went so spectacularly loony.

THE Swiss, on the other hand, may be a tad dull, but they are not daft. Roger Federer admitted to Jim Courier the other night that he likes the Australian Open towels so much he took four of them away with him after each of his matches. In the Open shop they cost $A55 each. Four towels x five matches x $A55 = $A1,100. A tidy sum on top of the $A420,000 he got for reaching the semi-finals.

Monday 31/01/11

“A WHOLE new career could open up if he wins”, wrote Boris Becker before Andy Murray lost yesterday’s Aussie Open final. But what can he have meant? After he won the US Open in 2008, Novak Djokovic was apparently approached by Serbian television to play the part of King Aleksandar Karadjordjevic, Yugoslavia’s first monarch, in a A$4m ten-part series. Djokovic declined, but one wonders which parts might be suitable for Murray. I can’t see him doing stirring oratory, so William Wallace might be out of the question, but he might make for a decent Hamlet. Being Danish, his new best friend, Caroline Wozniacki, could play the love interest and his mother, well she could be what’s ‘er name, his mother.

AS for Becker himself, he has several interests, including a deal with Vodafone that requires him to answer selected text messages from fans. Seemingly he has promoted the service at various events throughout Europe, including one in Airdrie. But beaten finalist or not surely Murray cannot be expected to go there.

AS noted previously in these dispatches, Billy Connolly – a comedian noted for talking a lot about “jobby” – was a fixture in the crowd at this year’s Australian Open. Another face around the place was that of Mark Philippousis, who is fondly known to his fans as the “Poo”. The former Australian world No.8 tennis player (never, sadly, No.2) was often described, without irony, as “a dangerous floater”. It would be nice to think the two men got together, perhaps with a view to writing a sitcom. No doubt BBC Scotland would find the money to commission it.

DO British sports administrators lie awake at night thinking of new ways to thwart Australian sportsmen and women? Judging from the rhetoric in the Australian press, it may be time they were less complacent. Apparently a “war chest” of A$2.5m has been assembled to help Australian athletes take medals from their British “enemies” in next year’s Olympic Games. “Every medal we take from them is worth two, because we gain one and they lose one,” reasons Craig Phillips of the Australian Olympic Committee secretary-general. Incoming fire! How are those defences coming along, chaps?


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Schleck must be more ruthless

This article appeared in The Herald

One incident above all in this year’s Tour de France, which finished in Paris on Sunday, provoked obsessive debate among cycling fans: an alleged breach of etiquette by the ultimate winner Alberto Contador that allowed him to gain 39 seconds – the margin of his eventual victory – on his rival Andy Schleck after the latter’s chain came off in the Pyrenees.

The argument that had Contador stopped riding and waited for the Luxembourger he might not have been in the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees is at best a facile way of looking at a 3600km race. Schleck may have seemed like the stronger rider throughout the race – by Saturday’s final time trial stage Contador was suffering from a fever – but little has been made of the fact that his rival was not without mechanical troubles of his own during the Tour: on the cobbles of northern France in the first week, he rode 30km with a back brake rubbing against his wheel. No-one waited for him then, and indeed for all those queuing up to condemn the Spaniard, there are plenty former riders who admit observance of the convention has always been the exception rather than the rule.

In any case, it was the Team Saxo Bank rider’s own poor decision to make a big gear change when he did that caused his chain to come off, and a certain lack of astuteness has plagued the 25-year-old’s career to date. After finishing 12th in his first Tour de France, in 2008, however, he has improved year on year: this year’s gap from the now three-time winner Contador was a significant improvement on the 4 minutes 11 seconds by which the latter beat him into second last year.

Race director Christian Prudhomme has wasted no time in identifying the beginnings of a captivating new chapter in the history of big Tour rivalries. For him the pair are the new Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocana, or Bernald Hinault and Greg LeMond. “They are almost at the same level and that promises new, extraordinary duels”, he said at the weekend, throwing in the names of another pair – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – just in case non-aficionados weren’t paying attention.

One name he failed to mention – perhaps because he was later implicated in a doping scandal – was that of Jan Ullrich, one of the youngest Tour winners ever in 1997 but then never able to repeat the feat once Lance Armstrong started his run of seven wins in a row from 1999. But the Anquetil-Poulidor rivalry may be the one Schleck has most to worry about replicating: Anquetil won the Tour five times between 1957 and 1964; Poulidor was the eternal podium bridesmaid, coming second on three occasions and third five times.

Conceivably, Contador and Schleck might continue their rivalry for another decade: the Astana man is the senior competitor at just 27. But will their relationship ever be reversed? And will Schleck have a better chance of winning than he did this year? “This race has been so close not because Andy has been a lot better, but because I’ve been a lot worse,” was how Contador saw it on Sunday, his greatness now beyond doubt after his latest victory placed him in a select group of riders (including only himself, Anquetil, Hinault and Merckx) to have won all three Grand Tours (France, Italy and Spain) at least once, and the Tour de France at least three times.

One reason he has given for being “worse” than last year was the fact that he was on a course of antibiotics the week before the race. But Schleck also had another mitigating factor to contend with: his team-mate and brother, Frank – whose attacks in the Alps and Pyrenees would doubtless have tired Contador – crashed on the cobbles on stage three and had to retire from the race.

The younger Schleck’s own tactical naivete didn’t do him any favours, either. He failed to sense that Contador was tired and so failed to attack until the last kilometre in the first mountain stage, Morzine-Avoriaz, and could have again made time on the stage 17 Tourmalet summit finish if he had only made another charge after he and Contador went clear in front together. “He was too clever for me”, Schleck admitted that day.

Laurent Fignon, the two-time Tour winner, gave his own assessment in yesterday’s l’Equipe. “Contador manipulated Schleck by playing with him on a psychological level,” he opined. “He compensated for his bad spells with great mental strength and by bigging up their friendship. Over the course of the Tour, he succeeded in making his rival switch off.”

The message was clear: Schleck must be more ruthless. Champions tend to be capable of learning from their mistakes. It’s up to Schleck to do so now.


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Tour de France preview

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

It is a remarkable thing, but people are actually talking about the terrain, the peculiarities of the course and the relative merits of the riders ahead of the 97th Tour de France, which starts in Rotterdam on Saturday.

It’s not that controversy has been wholly absent from the run-up, but no major riders from last year’s race – aside from Franco Pellizotti, King of the Mountains in 2009 – will be missing from the Tour caravan when it converges on the Dutch port.

There is also a vague feeling of ennui after all the doping scandals that have rocked cycling in recent years. The dramas of the coming weeks may well involve ignominy, but light enough has been shone on the secrets of the peloton to guarantee that it will be as clean in 2010 as it is likely to get.

For those who take an interest in the physical geography of the Tour – and the science of the thing can be every bit as dumbfounding as viticulture – a number of things stick out about this year’s race: the first week, which winds first through the Netherlands and Belgium before entering France on July 6, will offer a taste of the Northern Classics, including some of their most treacherous terrain; there is no team time trial this year; and the climbs look harder and are likely to be more decisive relative to last year.

That first incursion on French soil a week on Tuesday finishes in Arenberg, home to the notorious cobblestones of the “Drève des Boules d’Hérin” that form part of the “Hell of the North”, as the Paris-Roubaix spring classic is known. In 2004 the Basque rider, Iban Mayo, put paid to his Tour chances there, and anyone serious about placing high in the general classification must be up front and out of trouble before crossing the “pave”.

In the Pyrenees there are, unusually, two ascents on the Col du Tourmalet, one in the mammoth 196km 16th stage to Pau – which covers the four dreaded passes nicknamed the “Circle of Death” – and then at the finish of stage 17. Other major climbs in the Alps (including four in stage 9 between Morzine and Saint Jean-de-Maurienne) have likewise been included in tribute to epic battles of yore, but still there have been complaints that too few stages actually finish on a major summit. In fact, there were more stages last year in which it was feasible that breakaway climbers could be caught in the final kilometres after a big climb.

All of which is to say, Team Sky fans, that Bradley Wiggins will be up against it as he endeavours to improve on last year’s fourth overall. The 30-year-old Londoner, who has always been fast on the flat, was a revelation in the mountains riding for Garmin-Slipstream in 2009. But he wasn’t that good: mostly it was his ability to make up time on long final descents that ensured he kept within distance of the overall podium. That and his time trialling – but this year, after the prologue, there is only one further time trial, and that in the penultimate stage by which point he could be well back.

Britian’s only pro-cycling outfit are going for broke, however. Having omitted their most prolific sprinter, Greg Henderson, from their nine-man team in favour of the seasoned Canadian domestique Michael Barry, it is clear they are basing their entire approach around supporting Wiggins.

Otherwise, the majority of Anglo-Saxon interest will revolve around one man: Lance Armstrong. Having retired after his seventh Tour win in 2005, then returned with the stated ambition of winning an eighth, he finished third overall last year. This time, riding for RadioShack, he has not enjoyed a trouble-free build-up. Besides enduring crashes and illness, he has had to fend off allegations from his former US Postal team-mate Floyd Llandis that he doped in 2002 and 2003.

Nothing has been proven, but it is not the first time Armstrong has been implicated by conspiracy theorists who discern a cover-up. The American and his former Astana team-mate Alberto Contador, Tour winner in 2007 and 2009, are also impugned in the ongoing war between the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD), who allege the UCI have consistently shown favouritism towards the pair and that Astana were in the habit of keeping doping inspectors waiting for almost an hour for samples after stages. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have just turned down an AFLD request to carry out their own targeted tests over the next three weeks, on the grounds that they have “access to confidential information from the police and customs” that they cannot share with other organisations.

At any rate, Armstrong has started to put together some form in recent weeks, with podium finishes in the Tours of Luxembourg and Switzerland. He also has a strong team around him, including Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, and the winner, this month, of the Dauphin Libere, Janez Brajkovic, but let’s not forget the American is 38.

For his part, he was keen to talk up Contador’s chances last week. The two struggled to keep a lid on their strained relationship at Astana – the Spaniard declaring last year: “He [Armstrong] is a great rider but it is another thing on a personal level, where I have never had great admiration for him and I never will” – but Armstrong was all plaudits for his rival. “Alberto’s a complete rider with very few weaknesses. He climbs better [than anybody else] and he time-trials with the best,” he said.

Contador is odds-on favourite, but there are others worth keeping an eye on, not least Andy Schleck, Saxo Bank’s attack dog, the veteran Australian Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team), Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso – back racing, for Liquigas, after a two-year suspension for blood doping – and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, from whose Grand Tour checklist only a win in France is missing.

In terms of new contenders, Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), the 27-year-old Belgian who finished 15th overall in his Tour last year, and the 24-year-old Czech, Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), who improved on 13th in 2008 with ninth in 2009, may well impose themselves.

But while Spain have been knocked off their perch as favourites in the build-up to the World Cup, it will take something seismic in the first week for Contador to suffer the same fate.


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Talking tempo with Andy Roxburgh

This article appeared in The Herald

When Barcelona beat Celtic 3-2 at Parkhead two years ago, Gordon Strachan simply couldn’t believe the visitors had made a total of 700 passes. No amount of previous experience in European campaigns or fraught encounters with their domestic rivals in Old Firm matches had prepared his side for an opponent so utterly in control, not only of possession, but of the rhythm of the game.

Inter Milan may not have not won this year’s Champions League by playing the kind of free-flowing, expressive football Barca specialise in, but in last month’s final against Bayern Munich they showed a similar kind of mastery in their ability to control the game’s rhythm and tempo. Indeed, it was such that their manager, Jose Mourinho, said afterwards that he knew the game was over when his side went 2-0 up, despite the fact that 20 minutes remained.

Forget, for a moment, the quality of players at Barcelona’s and Inter’s disposal. In Scotland it is almost an article of faith that we play fast-paced football, but rarely do we think about how our teams might dictate or vary the tempo of a match. We may wish we could do this or that differently, but the high intensity of our game is something we tend to put store in. Year on year we hear claims that signings from abroad have struggled to adjust or will take time to adjust to the pace of the game here.

It is unlikely that homegrown players are really any fitter than their team-mates from elsewhere, however. And it is with some confidence that we can state that the majority of Scottish players would find it doubly difficult to adjust to the more controlled version of the game played in Spain, say. One might even conclude that the frantic pace at which Scots have traditionally learned to play football – make a tackle, win the ball, get it away – mitigates against the nurturing of a greater technical skill level.

Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland manager, and since 1994 UEFA Technical Director, does not believe that assessment to be entirely fair. “Coaches have to play football the best they can with what they’ve got, and in the conditions they’re given,” he says. “There are aspects which work against Scottish players, whether it’s the surfaces we play on, or the weather, or the facilities to train on. And there’s also the competitive element of a small league, which puts its own pressure on teams.”

He does believe, however, that the Scottish understanding of tempo is somewhat incomplete. “Scottish football is hectic – it’s all about power-running,” he says. “If you watch a Scottish league match, you see the ball getting played forward quickly and people racing in to pressure the ball, but that’s only part of the game. It’s not a simple equation. There are also a whole other raft of considerations – explosive power, speed of thought, the ability to pass the ball at speed. Teams like Barcelona and Arsenal are not only busy about the pitch, their passing speed is phenomenal.”

Roxburgh’s job is one that puts him in regular contact with the continent’s top coaches and managers. In anyone else, the roll-call of figures – Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson, Marcello Lippi, Juande Ramos – whose views he can quote from personal conversations might seem like name-dropping, but it’s clear that he is simply immersed in thinking about the beautiful game.

“You can talk about a game being hectic, everyone clattering in with tackles and so on, and it’s quite hard to live with that if you’re not used to it,” he adds. “But foreign players may be more used to a change-of-rhythm type of game, which is something our players find it very difficult to play against. They have you chasing all over the place.

“If you watch the top sides in Europe, transition speed is a key thing. When you’ve lost the ball, you quickly reform and immediately press the ball, but also when you’ve just won the ball back, it’s about the ability to go from defence into attack, to immediately run with the ball or find the right pass. That transition speed is not necessarily something we’re good at in Scotland – possession might change very quickly, but there’s not the same transition into a very controlled fast break. So it’s not just running, but also the speed of the ball and the speed at which you react to winning the ball – a quickness of perception, and then the ability to interpret that. I spoke to Zinedine Zidane recently about this, and he said the first place players are now fast is in their head, the ability to see situations quickly, and then to have the technical ability to implement the answer very quickly.”

It is often argued that English football has seen a “coming together” of styles in recent years, that under the influence of continental managers the traditional British way of playing – a basic 4-4-2 with wingers haring it down the flanks – has become diluted. Does this mean that the English game is less hectic or physical than it used to be? “Well, Fabio Capello has been successful with the national team in varying things; it’s not just quick-quick. And in English football generally, teams have become better at controlling the tempo. But the ball speed is phenomenal if you look at the top sides, and they’re also very good at exploiting space on the counter-attack.”

Roxburgh adds that this is something Scottish teams have never been particularly good at – “We were always at our best in Scotland playing off a tackle. A Scottish player gets a ball in a lot of space in he’s never quite sure what to do with it” – but he is not, by and large, a pessimist. Scotland can still breed and nurture gifted players, he says. Our football culture can still adapt and evolve.

“You can’t change it at the top level overnight; it has to be over a period of time. I think we do still have players with technical ability in Scotland, and we’ve always had them. I used to say when I was managing Scotland that guys like Gary McAllister and Paul McStay and Pat Nevin could easily play in the Italian league, just from a purely technical point of view. But since the Bosman ruling we’ve tended to look for that technical quality elsewhere, instead of on our own doorstep. I think now there is a swing back, but it takes time.”

Over the next four weeks, managers will pit competing football philosophies and their own tactical wits against one another on international football’s most prestigious stage; but the sides who reach the latter stages of the World Cup are likely to have certain things in common – among them the ability circulate the ball well, control the tempo of a game and attack quickly from “the depths”.

The current Scotland manager, Craig Levein, has many people’s confidence that he will make a decent fist of things with the squad available to him when qualification for the next major tournament, Euro 2012, begins later this summer. But if Scottish football does not, collectively, ask important questions about what it would rather its players were able to do and how it would like them to play, then the odds on us competing at the highest level will only lengthen.