Monday, 11 January 2010

Too Cold, Too Hot

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, apparently. It was in absence that I started this blog – in the arid desert of a football-less summer, in one of the odd-numbered years with no meaningful tournament to watch, with no huge build-up or crushing disappointment to savour alongside a cold, icy cider in a lazy, sweaty beer garden. They won’t be calling it the Long Hot Summer of 2009, but there were a few balmy days in there when I longed for the brisk chill of autumn and winter – when my thick Scottish blood, rosy cheeks and well-padded, hirsute frame would steel me against the bitter elements of the colder seasons, while little African and South American footballers donned gloves, scarves and even tights in attempts to survive 90 minutes of running around in places like Hull, Stoke, Wigan and Wolverhampton. No matter what the weather would be like outside, there was the dream of huddling round the big screen in a cosy pub, pint glasses slipping out of gloved hands, or staying in on a freezing cold Saturday, kept warm merely by the sound of Jeff Stelling’s gentle laughter at another hyperactive, stumbling live report by Chris Kamara.

Yes, the football fan craves the winter. The schedules are hectic, the season is starting to take shape and Alex Ferguson’s padded coats balloon into Everest-grade sleeping bags by mid-January.

But this year we survived Christmas and New Year to discover: absence, again. This time it’s the winter that’s scuppered us.

Last week the Carling Cup semi-finals, one of which was certain to be a pretty tasty Manchester derby, were called off. No big deal, really – I won’t miss a Tuesday night match too much.

But this weekend saw the cancellation of all but two Premier League matches, all but four Championship games, all but two League One matches and every single League Two game. Most of the lower league ties were off because of frozen pitches – effective undersoil heating technology does not, alas, stretch to the likes of Aldershot Town and Wycombe Wanderers. The Premier League matches were cancelled because it was deemed unsafe for fans to reach the ground amid the icy conditions found in almost all areas of the UK (but not, it seems, in Birmingham, where City were able to hold Manchester United to a very creditable draw, or in North London, where Arsenal drew with Everton as I struggled to stay on my feet in those very surrounding streets). Fair enough, I suppose – though it does somewhat beg the question why they bother having undersoil heating at all when the match gets called off anyway.

As I type, Manchester City are successfully playing against Blackburn, so maybe a thaw is upon us and the Premier League has had its cancellations for this year – but the sad fact of the matter is that there was a Premier League weekend, even a Super Sunday, without a full programme of football. Because of some snow. At the height of the season. No orange balls or hilarious slips by goalkeepers. No insane fat Geordies with no shirts on in the stands. And now the top team in the league has a game in hand, leading a month or so of the usual tedious mid-afternoon sports headlines where “Chelsea open up a five point gap at the top! Oh no, wait, it’s only two points now!” or “Manchester United close the gap on Chelsea to just a point! But have, er, played a game more.” Ugh.


All of which means that the football fan (i.e. me) has to focus their attention on sunnier climes for their football fix.

Luckily the Africa Cup of Nations has just kicked off, albeit with an extremely dark cloud hanging over it. When the bus carrying the Togolese national team through Angola came under sustained gunfire on Saturday and three of their staff were tragically killed, it seemed that the tournament might not even go ahead. Even now there is the nagging fear that another violent incident would surely see the competition abandoned. It’s a horrible thought, but I can’t help but wonder what action FIFA would take if something like this happened on the opening day of the World Cup – and it’s not like South Africa is such a safe country, either.

More happily, the opening game of the tournament generated a fairly spectacular result, when Mali, 4-0 down to hosts Angola with 11 minutes left to play, managed to come back and draw the game 4-4. Africa Cup of Nations tournaments are known for being high-scoring affairs, with the 2008 tournament seeing an incredible 99 goals (an average of over 3 a game), due, in part I’m sure, to a dearth of defensive quality from some of the weaker nations, but still – it’s eye-catching and entertaining stuff. It would certainly be great to see a truly great competition emerge from such a depressing start.

The shocks have continued today, with minnows Malawi demolishing Algeria 3-0 in their opening group game, and Ivory Coast being held to a goalless draw against lowly Burkina Faso. While Malawi’s result will reassure those who made cocksure predictions about the ease with which England will win their group games at the World Cup (listen to my supremely confident colleagues on the first episode of The Football Basement podcast for evidence of this), it certainly proves that the African nations are constantly getting stronger and more competitive as a group, rather than the old days when one or two spectacular teams massively outshined the rest. Having said this, the favourites must surely remain the likes of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon – though they’ll likely have to live up to their high billing to go all the way in the tournament.

So hopefully the snow will melt in a couple of days, Chelsea will make up their extra match and I’ll be safely ensconced in the pub watching an Ivory Coast v Ghana semi-final in a couple of weeks time. The winter can’t be all bad, can it?

No comments:

Post a Comment