Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Paddy's Sports View 19th June 2002

The massive expansion of golf around the world in the last few years is such that the choice for the golfing aficionado has never been greater. The construction of golf courses, and the associated leisure facilities, is a potential source of considerable revenues for the developed world and the developing world alike. If you have a good climate, available water, reasonable access to an international airport and suitable land then a golf course can be a very profitable investment. And in many ways Dubai is a model for other parts of the world. From the early days when the construction of the Emirates “Majlis” course from out of the desert seemed almost miraculous, we now take for granted the fact that a bare desert landscape can be converted into rich green fairways.

The burgeoning of golf tourism and the opportunistic creation of new golf courses to meet the demand not only widens choice, but also makes golf far more accessible for more people. When I was young in England in the post war years golf was a traditional, and rather elitist game. The courses dated back fifty years or more and all of them were member’s clubs which only tolerated non-member players with great reluctance. The club in Kent that my father was a member of used pricing and prejudice to keep out players who were “undesirable”! I remember driving to the club one day and as we approached the road which led to the clubhouse I noticed a prefabricated, metal roofed building on the course. I asked my father what it was and he said (somewhat shamefacedly) that it was the “Artisans” hut. He explained that the Club committee some years earlier had decided that there was a potential source of revenue available from “Artisan” (working class !) players. These players paid a small subscription for which they were allowed to play on the course on weekdays (when it was not so busy) - but they were not allowed to use any of the club’s member’s facilities or to play at weekends. Whether this golfing “caste” system still exists I doubt (I certainly hope not). Hopefully the massive growth of new facilities in Britain over the past few decades (including the construction of some excellent new “public” courses) has made such socially divisive systems unnecessary.

The need to keep a balance between the needs of members, and the requirements of casual players (especially holiday makers) is a tricky one to achieve. Many Emirates members feel that there are too many visitors on their courses and they resent the fact that it is not always easy for the members to get a tee-off time on popular days. But it is at Nad Al Sheba that some of the members are most aggrieved at what they see as an excessively commercial focus in recent times. A few months ago my wife and I were playing with a friend in a three-ball and as we reached the twelfth hole a marshal zoomed up in a golf cart and dumped a new player on the tee. This player was a visitor (paying cash no doubt) and on a busy afternoon the only way that the Club could accommodate him (and take his money) was to insert him into our three-ball. The fact that we were more than halfway into our round, and that we had developed a pace and style of play, was irrelevant. Now any golfer knows that the quality of a round is hugely affected by the interaction with your playing partners. You establish a way of playing, and to have it disrupted in this way was very unsettling.

Nad Al Sheba has become much less of a member’s club and much more of a commercially driven business in recent times. Indeed it is difficult to see what the advantages of membership are (other than the right to play in club competitions). The new membership structure is so complicated that even the club officials don’t really understand it. And one of the basic rights that members of gold clubs around the world enjoy (the right to sign for purchases and receive monthly accounts) has been taken away and you actually have to deposit money with the club if you want to have signing privileges!

The golfer (including the Dubai golfer) has never had more choice. Nad Al Sheba and the other clubs need to make sure that they cherish their members if they want to keep us in the future!

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Paddy's Sports View 12th June 2002

An hour or so after take off on EK003 from Dubai to London last Friday the pilot came on the public address system with an announcement. “Ladies and Gentlemen, here is an important message for passengers…’England 1…Argentina 0 is the final score!’ Now I am sure that this column’s loyal Argentinean readership will forgive me if I tell you that my customary dispassionate objectivity was cast aside for a moment and that I leapt from my seat and cried out “Yippee!!!”

Long standing rivalries are a key element in sport and without them one’s enjoyment would be lessened. In football England’s two greatest sporting enemies are, of course, Germany and Argentina. For England to have beaten these two in “World Cup” matches in the last six months has been sweet indeed!

Now I am sufficient of a realist to know that there is a long way to go in these “World Cup” finals (and that England may not even qualify for the next round if they blow it against Nigeria in the final group match). But from what I have seen so far, it is shaping up to be a tournament to remember and there is no reason why there could not be a surprise winner – maybe even England! We shall see. But what is pleasing is that many of the matches in the early stages of the finals in Japan and South Korea have been worthy of the description that all-time-great Pele used for the sport – he called in “The Beautiful Game”.

The beauty of football is its absolute simplicity of purpose and its instant accessibility. I have written recently about the awesome task of trying to explain cricket to someone who has grown up somewhere where the game is not played. With football no such problem arises. It is not just the ubiquity of the game which makes it so great, but the fact that there is really only one objective - to get the ball in your opponent’s net more often that they get it in yours. And there have been many great matches where there has been no scoring at all. Can you imagine the idea of a goalless draw in Baseball, American Football or Basketball? Indeed these sports don’t allow the possibility of a “tie” at all – there always has to be a “tiebreaker” in American sport – there always has to be a winner.

Whilst there is simplicity to the task in football that makes it unique (and sometimes “beautiful”) this is not too say that the game never disappoints. Football can sometimes be drab and dull or be blighted by cynical fouls - often when the stakes are too high or the discipline is too lax. But the game more often delights, than it disappoints. Part of the delight is that the form book is upset far more often than in other team sports. Senegal beats France. Croatia beats Italy. The USA beats Portugal. And any of the sides which reach the last sixteen could win the tournament - and that greatly adds to the general enjoyment of the spectator.

In referring to the simplicity of purpose of football I am not at all meaning to suggest that the tactics of the game, at the highest level, are simple. The best coaches develop football strategies worthy of the great generals in battles or military campaigns. Alf Ramsey, who managed England’s “World Cup” winning side of 1966, was the first coach to play a team without wing forwards. Before Ramsey the line up had always been 5:3:2 – with the front five having two wingers, two inside forwards and a centre forward. How ancient these terms sound today! As with many sports improved fitness levels, and a far greater requirement for all-purpose players who can attack as well as defend, have changed football a lot. But notwithstanding these changes the game itself is in many ways much as it always was. And the rules have hardly changed in a hundred years either – a time traveller from a century ago could go to one of this year’s “World Cup” matches and understand it immediately.

Beauty and simplicity, combined with fact that all you need to play the game is a bit of waste ground and a ball, have made football by far the world’s greatest sport. And the “World Cup” is football’s greatest tournament. Which is why I will continue to leap out of my seat if England wins – providing, of course, that the “fasten your seatbelts” sign is not illuminated!