Saturday, December 08, 2007

DG's Quick Hits- December 8, 2007

  • First off, I’d like to announce it’s my birthday, so there was at least one happy occurrence on this date (I know December 8 is better remembered for Dimebag Darrell’s and John Lennon’s deaths, but that’s not *all* that happened on December 8’s). Other notable December 8 births: Roman poet Horace, actress Kim Basinger, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells and reliever Jeremy Accardo, and San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
  • There must be something in the water in the British Isles: a week after a refereeing blunder robbed Scotland of a Euro 2008 place, another refereeing blunder could potentially rob Zenit St. Petersburg a knockout round place in the UEFA Cup. In the 30th minute of Zenit St. Petersburg’s 1-0 loss to Everton at Goodison Park, Zenit defender Nicolas Lombaerts was red carded by referee Kristinn Jakobsson for a handling offence inside his own penalty area. Miguel Arteta missed the resulting penalty (which brought a sense of “justice” to the proceedings) but the decision was still extremely wrong. Everyone (outside of the Everton camp)- from commentator Jon Roder to Zenit manager Dick Advocaat to Sportsnet analysts Tweedledee and Tweedledum (A.K.A. Gerry Dobson and Craig Forrest)- knew the call was wrong, as replays clearly showed that when the ball hit Lombaerts, his arms were behind his back and the ball went off his chest. Forrest offered the referee’s positioning- outside of the penalty box, a couple of feet up from the right corner (the opposite corner Lombaerts was situated in)- as the reason why the call was bungled, but this too is bunk- considering that Lombaert’s arms were nowhere near the ball when it arrived, Jakobsson should have clearly seen that there was no offence. Somewhere Allan Hutton can breathe a small sigh of relief knowing he’s not the only one wronged by a referee- but it still doesn’t make the action right.
  • Congratulations to Milan’s Filippo Inzaghi for passing the great Gerd Müller for most goals in European competitions after his 70th minute strike against Celtic gave him his 64th European goal. He may be a contentious figure (as Derek Rae himself so accurately put it, “some would say he was born offside”, and he *is* offside a lot) but he does get the job done. Now, considering that’s over with, how about an Italian league goal then?
  • TSN’s Darren Dutchyshen on SportsCentre following the completion of the Green Bay Packers-Dallas Cowboys tilt on the NFL Network (broadcast by TSN): “Oh, I’m glad the game’s over, because the guy (Bryant Gumble) sounded like he was calling it from the library.” He likely got in trouble for blasting TSN programming on air, but at least “Dutch” had the courage to state what every viewer (including myself) was also thinking- that Gumble isn’t a play-by-play guy. He’s funny and does know his football (unlike some announcers who clearly sound like they’re transplanted from other sports), but he never conveys any kind of emotion in his play calling, often sounding like he’d rather be somewhere else. Combined with the NFL Network’s bush-league presentation, it’s a joke that the NFL is even demanding that anyone pay for their network, because it’s better suited for a local high school telecast (if that). It’s a shame because Cris Collingsworth- who has the voice of an announcer, at least- is one of the best analysts today and shouldn’t stuck alongside Mr. Bored on the Third-Rate Football Network. I hope FOX, NBC or CBS manage to find a way to land the New England-NY Giants game, because a big game like that one is shaping to be doesn’t deserve to be on such a pathetic broadcast.
  • Speaking of announcers, is there anyone better than those on CBS’ crew? Ian Eagle has the best announcer voice outside of CBC’s Bob Cole and ESPN’s Derek Rae, Kevin Harlan has a very poetic voice (although I think he’s better suited to basketball) and Gus Johnson is a little kid wrapped up in an adult’s body (as someone noted on Johnson’s Facebook fan page, “it’s too bad Johnson didn’t call the DII Final or else his head would have exploded [“DII Final” refers to the NCAA Division II men’s basketball final between the Barton Bulldogs and Winona State Warriors won a last-second shot by Barton’s Anthony Atkinson and called by Eagle].”) The only downside? Its number one broadcast team- Jim Nantz (who has an annoying habit of calling a first down “a first”, as if it was an event) and Phil Simms (Captain Obvious). Still, it’s better than having to put up with the NFL Network’s effort.
  • Over the weekend, more serious incidents occurred in National Hockey League games, including Nashville Predators dunderhead Scott Nichol’s cross-check to the face of Montreal Canadiens defenceman Patrice Brisebois and Philadelphia Flyers knucklehead Riley Cote’s best Randy Jones imitation in elbowing Dallas Stars defenceman Matt Niskanen into the boards. Combined, the two players received eight games worth of suspensions (five for Nichol, considered a “repeat offender” after a nine-game ban following a sucker punch to Buffalo Sabres defenceman Jaroslav Spacek’s chops last year), when the actions clearly merited more. Jesse Boulerice, let’s not forget, received twenty games for a similar strike on Ryan Kesler, and while Niskanen didn’t get injured on the play, there’s no reason to think Cote’s actions were any more dangerous than Jones’ were on Boston Bruin Patrice Bergeron, who may miss the rest of the season. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, but if the NHL doesn’t clean up this mess, it won’t have any players left to play.
  • Of course, this was all overshadowed by a brawl in a game contested by players who were only eight years old. Yes, that’s right- they’re *eight*. Not twenty-eight (like Todd Fedoruk) but eight. The on-ice brawl took place late in a tournament game between the Duffield Devils and the Niagara Falls Thunder and while no one has determined what started the brawl, reports indicate that it spread after Duffield and Niagara Falls coaches started a fight of their own. Now, the immediate blame obviously falls on the coaches and the parents who didn’t direct their kids properly (there’s no reason for eight-year-olds to be fighting. Ever.), but tangentially the blame falls on the shoulders of Hockey Canada (for allowing body-checking at eight-years-old, when they haven’t developed the body strength to give and receive hits) and the NHL, whose implicit approval of violence through non-action on violent events sets the wrong example for kids who look up to NHLers. If this incident doesn’t spur the NHL into action, I don’t know what will.
  • Then again, maybe the NHL is thinking the way the CBC’s Don Cherry thought: “of all the two thousand million games the left-wing media chose this one to make hockey look bad.” Does that even *deserve* a refutation? Seriously- a conspiracy? C’mon, I expect better.
  • Not to be outdone is Greater Toronto Hockey League President John Gardiner (who oversees the league Duffield is a part of), who responded in a slightly less nonsensical manner by suggesting that the children are “byproducts” of adults who could be very decent people that transform once inside an arena. Really? I didn’t know arenas had some sort of force field that made otherwise decent people lose their demeanours (and if there is, it certainly has never affected me). Regardless, Gardiner’s and Cherry’s throwaway arguments is tantamount to them putting their heads in the sand and insisting “there’s no problem here”. There *is* a problem and ignoring it won’t make it go away- it will only make it worse.
  • Breaking news: Scott Niedermayer’s finally made up his mind: he’s coming back. So what does Anaheim Ducks General Manager Brian Burke think about it? Well, he’s not happy Niedermayer put him through this ordeal and with good reason- the Ducks stand to take a significant cap hit from Niedermayer’s return (it’s now at $1.5 million), and they shouldn’t have to put with Niedermayer’s selfish interests when he had all summer to decide if he wanted to come back. TSN’s Darren Dreger believes that Mathieu Schneider- brought in to replace Niedermayer- will be the one to go, but considering how happy Burke was with the ordeal, it just may be Niedermayer. Fortunately for the Ducks, it’s just this season they’ll have to worry about because Niedermayer won’t be back for next season- unless he changes his mind again, that is.
  • The most important thing learned from the Westroads Mall tragedy that occurred in Omaha this past Wednesday is the fact it was perpetuated by another “lost cause”. The shooter, Robert Hawkins, 19, explained in his suicide note that he’s been “a peice (sic) of s*** my entire life and that “this is the only option”, eerily extolling the silver lining, “just think tho (sic) I’m gonna be f***ing famous.” Like other murder-massacres (such as the Virginia Tech massacre), the tragedy that’s often missed is the life of the shooter, who is often troubled mentally and emotionally and thus feels that the world has left them behind (hence the rampages). More needs to be done to help the troubled (such as counselling options instead of more jail time for the “potentially troubled”, especially the youths), and more needs to be done to ensure that these rampages are far less common (they are not preventable) which includes restricting access to guns. This does not include things like banning video games (which do NOT turn players into killers) but would include things like better parenting, because it’s the parents’ job to ensure “the wrong ideas” don’t enter “the wrong head”. None of this will revive the eight lives needlessly lost here, but here’s hoping that after two massacres in 2007, 2008 will be massacre free. At least.
  • Speaking of “troubled”, there’s the case of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after a friend she met on MySpace turned on her and started writing offensive messages and spreading gossip. That’s not the worst part of the story- Meier’s “friend” (Josh Evans) was in fact entirely made up by Lori Drew, the mother of a daughter who was once best friends with Meier. Since Drew’s involvement became known, her house (in Dardenne Prairie, near St. Louis) became routinely vandalized and she has since become the target of angry bloggers worldwide. The Meiers attempted to press charges against Drew, but the prosecutors had nothing with which to try a case, as the FBI were unable to obtain the final messages Evans sent to Megan (including the one Megan’s father Ron said that killed her). Furthermore, the police report- released by The Smoking Gun- stated that others hacked into the Evans account was hacked (according to Drew), so the allegations obtained an air of “he-said-she-said” to them. That is the ultimate tragedy here: that there will be no charges, and the blame falls on both sides. What Drew did was gutless, but Ron Meier was careless with the evidence, since the fact that the messages could not be retrieved is likely the main reason why charges are not pending (you can’t try someone without evidence). It’s a sad ending to a sad story, but, unfortunately, there probably won’t be any other end. I do hope that Internet harassment can become better prosecuted (which may be the only silver lining here) because Megan Meier did not deserve to die in vain.
  • Let’s turn to baseball now: Barry Bonds expectedly pleaded not guilty to allegations that he lied in front of a grand jury during the December 2003 BALCO inquiry. The next hearing isn’t expected until February and the trial should extend well into (and maybe past) next season, raising speculation that he might play. The question is, will he? There’s not a team out there who could afford to take on Bonds (since he is a controversial figure) and, while his numbers are good, they’re not the “other-worldly” numbers where the controversies surrounding him would become irrelevant. Besides, he’ll be 44 next season and who knows how many years he’ll have left. Now, I’m a believer that someone is innocent until proven guilty (reminding everyone that everything- including steroid use- are just allegations) so I hope he does play, but I’m not sure if there’s a team that would be willing to give Bonds the benefit of the doubt and hand him a contract, meaning that we’ve likely seen the end of Barry Lamar Bonds on a baseball field.
  • Somewhat closer to the field is the rumours that Johan Santana, the star pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, is likely to be traded to either the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees. So much for economic parity, I guess, however, before anyone uses this as an excuse to further hate the Yankees or the Sox, the vitriol would be better served directed at Major League Baseball itself, because the Sox and Yankees are merely exploiting a system which clearly favours them over everyone else. It’s not the Yankees’ or Sox’s fault (mostly anyway) that MLB’s supposedly different economic arrangement continues the “major league farm team system” that has been around since the mid-1990s at least, because it’s the MLB- as a whole- that put that system in place. The real losers in all this are the Twins’ fans, who should expect some kind of respect from baseball and their own owners because, after all it was owner Carl Pohlad who tried to get their team contracted in the late 1990s and seems to be continuing the machinations now, meaning baseball, North America’s sickest sport, will continue its spiral into its ultimate path in the grave. An unfortunate end, yes, but it is still something baseball did to itself.
  • When the Philadelphia Eagles lost to the New England Patriots, the Patriots simply showed they were ultimately the better team and thus rightly won. When the Baltimore Ravens lost to the New England Patriots, it truly was an opportunity wasted. Their defensive co-ordinator called a timeout which nullified a late fourth down stop (that would have sealed the game), and the Ravens couldn’t capitalize when a Patriots false start penalty turned the ensuing play from a fourth-and-one to a fourth-and-six. Then the Ravens were flagged for defensive holding nullifying another fourth down stop. After that there was Bart Scott steamed at the referee for throwing a flag against him for dissention (after Scott was burned for Jabar Gaffney’s winning touchdown reception), resulting in Scott heaving the flag into the stands and seeing 30 penalty yards assessed to him (meaning the Patriots kicked off from Baltimore’s 30, not the Baltimore 45 as would have been the case had Scott not tossed the flag). Finally there was confusion among offensive ranks in the final drive, wasting too many precious seconds after each play forcing a Hail Mary pass instead of a drive that could have resulted in a field goal to force overtime. It’s not often this season where someone could say “they should have beaten the Patriots” but Monday night was a clear example of that.
  • Last, but not least, are two oddball news stories that caught my eye over the past week. I’ll quote Jay Leno before breaking into this next story. “What do I love the most? Stupid criminals”; and this one couldn’t be more stupid. Matthew Tillotson stole three handguns (valued at $12,000) and jewellery worth $1,500 after breaking into a safe in a Gillette, Wyoming store on December 2. Unfortunately for Tillotson, he left behind a receipt from another store- a tire store- that left his name, address and the identity of his truck. Tillotson surrendered when confronted with the evidence, although- unfortunately- only one gun was recovered. Still, that will be small solace for Tillotson, who can expect quite a long time thinking about just how dumb he was on that fateful day.
  • Finally there are reports that New Dehli police intend to start enforcing jaywalking offences in a city that sees more than 900 people killed in jaywalking related incidents. Things apparently are so bad in the Indian city that impatient pedestrians think it “takes too long for the light to turn green” and thus dart across the road regardless of the colour of the light. Indian police insist the program is about education (as police speculate that some of the jaywalking incidents occur because villagers who move to New Dehli are not aware of traffic lights), but not all seem to be getting the message- some, such as courier Vasant Pant, said he’d watch for police officers before crossing. I’m not sure how well this will work- according to the Reuters story, motorists aren’t exactly that careful themselves. Now, I’m wondering if the same thing could be done here considering Toronto streets that can be just as perilous and feature just as many jaywalkers…hmmnn…


Friday, December 07, 2007

Champions League reforms- business as usual

UEFA chief Michel Platini, who won the presidency on a campaign of reforming the Champions’ League, announced his reforms on November 30. The reforms are to take effect beginning in 2009-10, which include the final on a Saturday (increasing viewership) and scrapping the Intertoto Cup. The major part of the plan, though, is a reform to the Champions’ League group stages, where, Platini hoped, would provide the competition with newer faces and give UEFA’s smaller federations- long shut out of the competition in general- a better shot at the prize and competing in the more lucrative stages.

However, his plan falls short. This is Platini’s plan to “reform” the Champions’ League: have 22 “direct entries” into the group stage (including the top three teams in the top three leagues- i.e., England, Spain and Italy) and have ten “qualifies”, determined from two sets of qualifying rounds. One set will feature the fourth place teams from England, Spain and Italy taking on the second place teams (remember that) from the No. 6-15 federations, while the other will see the champions of the No. 16-53 federations (except Liechtenstein, which does not organize a league competition). Five qualifiers will be selected from each group.

On the surface, it looks great- there is only one team from federations ranked No. 16 to No. 53 (“Europe B” I’ll label them, for convenience) in this year’s Champions’ League (Rosenborg BK of Norway) after two qualified last year (Levski Sofia of Bulgaria and FC Copenhagen of Denmark), so to have five of them in the group stages would be a major shake-up. Plus, instead of seeing the No. 1-15 federations (“Europe A”) teams feast on the Europe B teams in those glorified exhibition matches that are better known as the Third Qualifying Round, those teams are going to have to play each other, ensuring more competitive matches. There- more variety and a more difficult path for the biggest clubs in Europe, which is what Platini was hoping for.However, Platini’s changes are really nothing more than cosmetic ones. These are the federations ranked No. 6-15: Portugal, Romania, Netherlands, Russia, Scotland, Ukraine, Belgium, Czech Republic, Turkey and Greece, with No. 4 and No. 5 being France and Germany. Yes, it means that the likes of, say, Liverpool, Sevilla and Lazio would have to play teams like AEK Athens, Sporting Lisbon and Beşiktaş instead of HiT Gorica, Pobeda and FC Almaty (cookies for anyone who knows where those teams play), but it still doesn’t mean they won’t get through to the group stage- the No. 6-15 teams have very rarely ever been much competition for teams in the higher leagues, so Europe’s Big Three leagues will still send their customary four teams to the group stage. As for the five Europe B teams now in the group stage: considering recent history (except for Rosenborg’s surprising run this year which may net them a knockout stage berth, no team from Europe B has made it to the knockout round in its current form, spanning five seasons, and have not made a knockout stage since Rosenborg themselves reached the quarterfinals in 1997), these teams will be nothing more than cannon fodder. At this rate, anyone reproducing Liverpool’s 8-0 victory over Beşiktaş would be considered “a disappointment”.

If Platini really wanted change, why not have separate groups for Europe A and Europe B, with the Round of 16 being where they link up? Yeah, the “cannon fodder effect” might still occur then (considering the opposition), but in a knockout stage there’s less room for error, so there’s a greater chance of an upset. Besides, this would provide the Europe B federations considerably more prize money than the paltry pickings they get now (and what they would get from the group stage) and might help them build teams capable of winning on Europe’s greatest stage. If Platini is worried about exposure, UEFA could market these “little clubs” better (first of all) and could even stage “inter-group” games that count in the standings. The Europe B teams might still have a hard time winning any of those games, but with any luck, the revenue generated from these games (and from the knockout stage games) would speed up their development faster than the current proposal will.

*sigh* I had so much promise for Platini’s efforts…instead, it’s going to be business as usual come 2009. So much for those meaningful reforms.