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Sunday, 09 December, 2018

New tournament offers a bright spot on dull international calendar

Nations League a welcome addition

It would have been exciting to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi on the same team
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Usually when a commentator says they will leave something to the mathematicians it’s a great opportunity to laugh at their failure to grasp something as basic as the implications of an away goal or a goal difference equation involving more than two teams.

But the task of understanding the format of the new Uefa Nations League, particularly how it ties in with the European Championship qualification process, does require a bit of concentration.

However, while the competition, the draw for which took place yesterday, does not look entirely without its flaws it strikes me as a welcome addition to the international calendar and will instantly solve the problem of an excess of dull, irrelevant friendlies.

Of course that could have been achieved simply by getting rid of friendlies for everything except warm-up matches for major finals, and I would have had no problem with that.

But the option that has been chosen, which in a nutshell (Google ‘Nations League explained’ for the 12-inch version) involves qualifiers between closely-matched countries based on rankings, will give a competitive edge to those weekends when the domestic action is rudely interrupted by the need to keep international football’s pulse beating.

And the finals will spice up those odd-numbered summers when we would otherwise be hankering for a World Cup or European Championship finals.

The obvious flaw is that because the group winners have a crack at qualifying for the Euros and one finalist will be the winner of the lowest-ranked section of the Nations League there is a possibility that teams who lose their first playoff match might see an advantage in losing the second one as well, thus being relegated to a lower section for the next tournament.

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But apart from that we have ourselves a new competition that will not be dripping in prestige from the word go but looks monumentally more alluring than the current mish-mash of one-off friendlies that serve little or no point.

However, there is a potentially more interesting alternative to the Nations League, which I would love to have been tabled. It could have followed the same qualification format as the new tournament but with one fundamental difference.

Instead of teams comprising players born in a particular country, the sides would be composed of players registered to play in that country.

I wouldn’t be remotely fussed about the best of the Finnish League versus the best 11 players who ply their trade in Malta but at the top end it would be sensational.

Just imagine a four-team tournament between the best players in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga. It would be different class.

The composition of the squads and starting line-ups would provoke huge debate and the quality of the football would, provided everyone took it as seriously as possible, be the best we have ever seen.

Imagine, for instance, an England team made up of De Gea, Azpilicueta, Alderweireld, Koscielny, Mendy, Zaha, Kante, De Bruyne, Mane, Hazard and Kane playing against their equivalent star-studded sides from the other elite leagues.

A team containing Messi and Ronaldo is also an exciting prospect, albeit you wouldn’t want to buy the total number of one-twos involving those two legends.

But while an opportunity has been missed, it is still excellent news that we will no longer be subjected to painfully tedious, meaningless friendlies. I look forward to seeing how the Nations League establishes itself.

Golf in danger of dying a slow death

Doing a poll of the most boring sports is about as worthwhile as doing a poll of people’s favourite colours. What person A finds dull has no bearing on what excites or anaesthetises person B, although the recent YouGov survey was interesting nonetheless.

Various citizens were asked to say whether they found each of 17 popular sports boring, exciting or neither. There was also a ‘don’t know’ section for those people who had no concept of what, say, swimming is.

Anyway, the results are in the accompanying table and they throw up some obvious conclusions.

First, it looks like they have raided the Radio Times database and focused on the Home Counties in their quest for participants. It strikes me as peculiar that athletics, tennis, gymnastics and rugby union can be the most popular.

Football is the most popular sport, which is almost undeniable even if you hate football.

And sitting bang in mid-table is Formula 1, which isn’t even a sport. It’s engineering.

It is also the most boring version of a sport involving wheels, with overtaking a laughably rare occurrence and the act of changing the wheels generally providing the highlights of any particular race.

Racing, which is easily the most paranoid, self-critical sport of the lot, finds itself seventh most-boring, which is something of a relief to someone as paranoid and self-critical as me.

But it is golf at top spot that strikes me as the most interesting outcome of the exercise, which is, I suppose, the whole point.

As someone who spends what most people would consider to be a weirdly large proportion of my life watching golf I can completely understand why others would rather watch their toenails grow than tune in to watch a tournament develop.

Undoubtedly it helps to be a player of the game and to have had a bet, but if you tick both of those boxes it is an enthralling way to fill the gap between birth and death.

However, golf does have an undeniable problem with the pace of play, which is roughly twice as slow as it should be.

Without anything like as radical a move as creating T20 cricket, golf could boost its appeal no end, from both a playing and viewing perspective, by simply hurrying up.

It is unnecessarily slow, and almost intolerably slow. On Sunday I watched for what seemed like roughly the time it takes an egg to boil as some guy attempting to boost his winnings from the CareerBuilder Challenge faffed around on the green in an attempt to judge how hard to hit his putt and in which precise direction.

He bent down and stared at the patch of grass between his ball and the hole, then his caddie did the same. Then he wandered slowly around the hole and looked from the other side.

Then he bent over as if to putt but of course there was more messing about to come. Anyway, just as I was about to smash the television set to pieces he finally jabbed at the ball and sent it about two feet to the right of the cup. In other words, roughly where he might have left it if he’d drunk a bottle of vodka, worn a blindfold and attempted to make the putt.

This is an experience to which the viewer is increasingly subjected. Shots from the fairway are prepared equally meticulously and yet the slow players seem no more successful than those heroes who actually realise they are there to entertain and don’t bore the crap out of everyone with their pointlessly elongated shot routines.

They simply have to speed it up. It should be standard procedure to walk briskly between shots and then spend no more than ten seconds assessing how far the ball needs hitting, the direction and speed of the wind and the correct club to pull from the bag.

I would stake vast sums that the difference between that approach and the current unacceptable one would cost players no more a couple of shots per round and if everyone was going quicker nobody would be worse off.

The sport’s participants would obviously reject this plan because they are too arrogant to believe there is a problem, but it is clearly not just me that thinks the sport needs to sort itself out.

As well as the YouGov respondents, the number of people playing golf is dropping off alarmingly, courses are empty and in many cases their owners are praying a property developer is allowed to come to their rescue and the whole sport is losing pace with the modern world.

If cricket can take steps to successfully reinvent itself, so can golf.

Charming Armfield will be sorely missed

As an avid listener of sport on the radio and someone who believes we are brilliantly served by the combined output of Radio 5 Live and Talksport, I shared the universal feeling of sadness at the death this week of Jimmy Armfield.

The former England captain was a regular passenger in my car on journeys home from the office, not in one of the seats of the vehicle but delivering charm and wisdom from the radio as he provided co-commentary on live football matches.

Armfield had views and thoughts but he was able to offer them without the need to yell or dramatise. His gentle authority always made for agreeable listening and it speaks volumes for the man that his passing was so universally mourned.

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Just imagine a four-team tournament between the best players in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga
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