Glorious requiem for beaten Federer

Roger FedererGreat champions are artists whose gifts, perversely but inevitably, wane as middle age appears on the horizon. Few have waged war with the inescapable reality of nature’s course and produced defining moments in the autumn of their careers when the spring and summer have been so glorious. Improbably, what we saw on Wimbledon’s Centre Court yesterday afternoon in the men’s singles final gave us just that. The most decorated tennis player of all time failed in his quest to become the open era’s oldest Wimbledon champion; but in doing so he produced a performance so stained with finesse and pugnacity, and so awe-inspiring in its refusal to accept the predetermined, that Roger Federer’s finest hour might just have come in defeat.

Defeat is an occurrence so antithetical to Federer’s record-breaking decade and a half in the relentless and at times lonely world of men’s professional tennis, that using it as the ultimate seal of his greatness might seem to be an unjust proposition. What of the unparalleled 17 Grand Slam singles titles and the countless epic victories along their way? The 79 career singles titles gained all across the world and almost six years spent as world number one? Or his role as the central figure in arguably the greatest era in men’s tennis, and his raising of the bar that has served as motivation for other men to rise to the challenge of scaling it alongside him?

Standing in Federer’s way yesterday were two different but imposing figures, and it is this more than anything else that transformed his performance into a running eulogy to the historic magnitude of the man. The younger, stronger Djokovic, well on the way himself to joining the pantheon of the game’s most celebrated figures, would have been a formidable enough foe on his own. The Serbian’s metronomically punishing groundstrokes, athleticism and lack of weakness in any aspect of his game, combined with an iron will and crystal clarity of mind when the chips are down – found only in the lockers of a select few – rendered the need for any form of assistance redundant.

But fighting in Djokovic’s corner on Centre Court yesterday was Father Time himself, an invisible but haunting presence stalking Federer throughout the majority of three hours and 56 minutes of some of the most fiercely contested tennis ever seen in the 92-year history of the sport’s most fabled arena. Eleven times the old man’s continuous whispers in Federer’s ear grew deafening, but were silenced in turn as he saved break or match points at various crucial junctures throughout the marathon contest. By the end he had given up his own ghost and retired to the shadows to watch in awe like the rest of us, as instead of merely turning back the clock Federer walloped it across the court repeatedly until it stopped working.

Federer had outflanked the Reaper, who had come to read his career at the highest level the last rites on the most public stage of all. Defeat had been expected, but not like this. His reaction to losing the match, in which throughout five sets he had pushed Djokovic to the absolute extremities of his physical and mental capabilities, was a telling one. There was no flood of tears, which we have seen from him before after leaving his body and soul on court and narrowly losing a Grand Slam title. There was only a solitary one, and, rather than weakness, there was an unmistakable look of steel and pride in his eyes.

Roger Federer will be almost 34 when next year’s Wimbledon comes around. Nature will have spent 12 more months diminishing his gifts and developing those of his rivals, particularly those of the younger generation of players who made such a mark in the earlier stages of this year’s tournament. Father Time cannot be eluded forever and the fear is that next year Federer won’t have the strength to send him packing again.

While his heroic performance yesterday suggested that he’s not finished yet, it is not difficult, somehow, to hope that he is. He has been king of the sport he has dominated and as such deserves to go out on a sedan chair, being cheered to the echo after a heroic defeat to a fellow legend-in-waiting, rather than on a dustcart after one match too many.

© Mark Robinson 2014




FIFA World Cup: Villains, Cheats, Sulkers And Winkers

The World Cup: it’s about glory and the pursuit of sporting immortality, right? Well, no. Not always.

Here’s an all-star XI of the World Cup’s biggest villains, cheats, sulkers and general bad eggs. Some of them you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley. Some of the others you’d definitely fancy your chances against…

Harald SchumacherGoalkeeper: Harald Schumacher, West Germany, 1982 and 1986

Shortly after this incident in the 1982 semi-final, when Schumacher almost decapitated the French striker Patrick Battiston, the German keeper was voted the most unpopular man in France – relegating Adolf Hitler into second place. Despite Schumacher knocking out three of the Frenchman’s teeth, damaging one of his vertebrae and sending Battiston into a post-match coma, the referee didn’t even give a free kick. West Germany went on to defeat France on penalties and reach the final. “If that’s all that’s wrong with him I’ll pay for his dental work myself,” the German said afterwards. To the delight of neutral fans everywhere, Italy went on to defeat West Germany 3-1 in the final. Four years later, the West Germans, with Schumacher again in goal, lost another World Cup Final.


Claudio GentileRight back: Claudio Gentile, Italy, 1978 and 1982

As a teenager, it was probably a toss up for Gentile as to whether he would become a cold-hearted hitman for the mob or a cold-hearted defender for the Italian national team. An ever-present in Italy’s 1978 and 1982 World Cup matches, he earned a winner’s medal in 1982 and a reputation as one of the most cynical defenders of his or any generation. In the second group phase of their ultimately victorious 1982 campaign, he ‘neutralised’ both Maradona and Zico. It’s rumoured that both men still check the back seat of their cars when they get in the front, and that the neighbourhood Alsatians pair up when they spot him on his morning stroll. With club side Juventus, Gentile won six Serie A titles and two major European honours.


Slaven BilicCentre back: Slaven Bilic, Croatia, 1998

Bilic earned 44 international caps as a player and went on to manage the national team; he has a law degree, plays guitar in a rock band and is something of a political philosopher. “I am a true socialist,” he told a Turkish magazine after being appointed Besiktas manager in 2013. “I know I can’t save the world on my own, but if there is a struggle against injustice I always prefer to be on the frontline.” Try telling that to Laurent Blanc. In the 1998 World Cup semi-final, the Frenchman brushed Bilic’s chest with his hand while jostling in the penalty area. Bilic went down clutching his face, Blanc was sent off – for the first time in his career – and then banned for the once-in-a-lifetime World Cup final in front of his home fans in Paris.


Frank RijkaardCentre back: Frank Rijkaard, Holland, 1990 and 1994

A four-time European Cup winner (three times as a player for Ajax and Milan, once as coach of Barcelona) and European champion with Holland in 1988, Rijkaard was one of the most technically gifted and versatile players of the 1980s and 90s. I have lined him up here at centre half, where his supreme ability to read the game would cause opposing strikers problems. In the 1990 World Cup he caused a different type of problem for West Germany striker Rudi Voller, shaming his country by spitting at the back of Voller’s head in full view of the watching millions. Both men were sent off and, to make matters worse for Voller, his luxuriously thick perm meant he got through 13 bottles of shampoo in the shower afterwards as he tried to wash it clean.


Patrice EvraLeft back: Patrice Evra, France, 2010

Evra has never been far from controversy in the latter stages of his career. Often that controversy hasn’t been of his own making (see below), but as captain of France’s disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign, and the ringleader in a mid-tournament mutiny and strike against the coach, Raymond Domenech, who had made him skipper, he makes this team as its resident left back. Evra and his fellow teammates took offence to the dismissal from the squad of that famous paragon of virtue, Nicolas Anelka, during the group stage in South Africa. French World Cup winner Lilian Thuram called for Evra to be banned from the national team for life for his role in the fiasco. He wasn’t. He got five games and is a member of France’s squad for the 2014 tournament.


Cristiano RonaldoRight wing: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal, 2006 and 2010

Nobody can dispute Ronaldo’s genius as a player and his supreme dedication to his career as a footballer that has made him one of this century’s global superstars. There is, however, much to laugh at here, too: the haircuts; the narcissism; the outfits; the Ronseal-esque perma-tan; and the comical on-pitch histrionics. In 2006, Ronaldo’s then Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney was sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho during England’s quarter-final with Portugal. Rooney deserved to go, but Ronaldo’s reaction in imploring the referee to show a red card left a bad taste. With mission accomplished, his knowing wink to his teammates made things seem ten times worse. Fearful of the reaction back in England, Ronaldo confessed to wanting to leave United before burying the hatchet with Rooney.


Roy KeaneCentral midfield: Roy Keane, Ireland, 1994 and 2002 (well, almost)

In his autobiography, even Sir Alex Ferguson admitted to being frightened of Keane when the red mist descended on the combustible Irish midfielder. In the build up to the 2002 World Cup, Ireland manager Mick McCarthy was on the receiving end of one of Keane’s most infamous, if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase, ‘paddies’. Keane wound himself up into a frenzy at the perceived amateurism in the Irish camp, from the poverty of the team hotel and training facilities to McCarthy’s tactical naivety as a coach. A spiteful, expletive-laden character assassination of McCarthy in a pre-tournament team meeting ensued, before Keane jetted home to his mansion and a few weeks of dog walking in leafy Cheshire.


Simeone and BeckhamCentral midfield: Diego Simeone, Argentina, 1994, 1998 and 2002

Let’s get this out of the way first: Beckham shouldn’t have done it. He shouldn’t have flicked his leg out at Simeone in England’s second round match against Argentina in Saint-Etienne at the 1998 World Cup. He was naive. But for a self-styled midfield hardman who seemed to sweat Latin American machismo, Simeone’s fall – akin to a felled tree – despite minimal contact was somewhat overlooked in the immediate media and effigy-hanging frenzy that condemned England’s poster boy for his stupidity. Simeone had everything you need in a Latin football villain: a foxhound’s instinct for chasing referees; cynicism in abundance; the sense that he’d trade his grandmother for a win; and a world class smirk.


RivaldoLeft wing: Rivaldo, Brazil, 1998 and 2002

Brazil has produced a list of supreme creative players as long as your arm and Rivaldo has a rightful place on it. A key man for Barcelona and the national team around the turn of this century, his career will be forever footnoted by one of the worst displays of playacting and cheating ever seen on a football pitch. In the dying seconds of a group stage match in 2002, Turkish midfielder Hakan Unsal kicked the ball to Rivaldo, who was waiting to take a corner. The ball hit him on the thigh, but the Brazilian went down clutching his face like he’d been on the receiving end of a bludgeoning right hand from Frank Bruno. Hakan Unsal received a second yellow card, a sending off and a ban. Rivaldo went on to receive a winner’s medal but also eternal ridicule that has overshadowed his achievements.


Luis SuarezForward: Luis Suarez, Uruguay, 2010

Unless you are Uruguayan or support Liverpool FC, Suarez is almost certainly the footballer from the current generation that you love to hate more than any other. His crimes at club level include biting two opponents on the pitch and a racism storm involving our friend Patrice Evra, all of which led to lengthy bans. Before all of that, though, Suarez outraged hundreds of millions of fans by producing a deliberate handball on the goal-line deep into extra time in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final, which denied Ghana a goal and, almost certainly, victory. Suarez was sent off but Asamoah Gyan missed the resultant penalty and Uruguay eventually knocked out the Africans on penalties.


Hand Of GodForward: Diego Maradona, Argentina, 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994

Last but not least, the daddy of them all. For some, including me, the Argentine is the greatest footballer ever to walk the earth. For others, justifiably, he’s the biggest villain and cheat in World Cup history. All of his four Finals appearances are tainted by controversy: his petulant red card against Brazil in 1982; the infamous ‘Hand Of God’ goal against England in 1986; imploring the people of Naples, his adopted home, to support Argentina instead of Italy in 1990, and his histrionics and tears throughout that tournament; and his positive drug test and ban in 1994. None of this has altered his place in the affections of his people back home, where a significant religious movement in his honour – ‘The Church Of Maradona’ – thrives. Those Argentines who haven’t signed up look on him merely as a demi-god.


So there you have it. Some of the most controversial figures in World Cup history together in one team. They look pretty formidable on paper though, don’t they?



My All-Time FIFA World Cup XI

In the build-cup to the 2014 FIFA World Cup the internet has gone crazy with people posting their all-time World Cup XIs. So I decided to have a go at my own. With such a rich history it was a difficult task but this is my final draft. The person I most feel sorry for is Lothar Matthaus as the single anchor man…

All-time World Cup XI


Here’s how they line up (4-1-3-2): Banks (Eng); Cafu (Bra), Moore (Eng), Beckenbauer (Ger), Maldini (Ita); Matthaus (Ger); Pele (Bra), Maradona (Arg), Cruyff (Ned); Muller (Ger), Ronaldo (Bra)

Subs bench: Zoff (Ita); Baresi (Ita); Breitner (Ger); Zidane (Fra), Garrincha (Bra), Puskas (Hun), Romario (Bra)

In case you can’t tell, the man in bottom left is Gusztav Sebes, who I’ve chosen as coach. He never won the World Cup but he managed the greatest team never to win it – the 1954 Hungarians. A visionary from behind the Iron Curtain, his team brought football into modern era and lost only one match in 50 – that fateful 1954 World Cup Final against West Germany, which is known as ‘The Miracle of Bern’. People mainly remember that defeat and forget Hungary’s 8-3 trouncing of the Germans earlier in the competition, their gold medal at the 1952 Olympics and the lessons they dished out to England in 1953/54 – a 6-3 win at Wembley, when Sebes’s Communist superstars became the first non-British team to win on English soil, and a 7-1 victory in the return match in Budapest.

Sebes’s attacking genius paved the way for Holland’s Total Football in the 70s, Brazil’s mercurial 1982 side and the Johan Cruyff-influenced Barcelona teams of the last 25 years. He deserves a shot at managing this team – though they’d need to travel to another planet to find opponents capable of giving them a game…