Armstrong’s concession lurches sports fans into uncertain new world where nothing is as it seems

In effectively holding up the white flag of surrender by allowing the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him for life, Lance Armstrong has burdened all of professional sport with the obligation to confront some ugly truths.

The cold clear light shone on Armstrong’s world by the testimony of former teammates complicit in his crimes still has the power to shock in a sport whose past scandals might have inured us to such feelings by now. In the light of USADA’s compiled evidence (soon to be released to the public), Tyler Hamilton’s interview to CBS about his and Armstrong’s partaking in the wider culture of doping in cycling (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQZnBpoC2jc) can now be taken at face value. His step-by-step deconstruction of the myth Armstrong and cycling spun, through detailing EPO packages sent back and forth between US Postal team members, furtive trips to Spain on private jets to reap the illegal benefits of blood transfusions and the apparent certainty with which Armstrong knew any positive tests would be covered up, reveals the incestuous extent to which cyclists and cycling’s governing body alike stitched doping into the fabric of the sport to further interests that were to do with anything but.

As big the man, and as hard the fall that awaits him, some of the evidence that the investigation surrounding him has thrown up impels us, USADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport to look beyond the story of one man’s downfall, and continue probing deeper in a bid to strike the dark heart of the problem. There is enough to suggest that the International Cycling Union (UCI) has been in on Armstrong’s game from at least as far back as 1999, and that they colluded with him to cover up positive tests and further a legend that brought financial rewards to all who were party to its construction. Armstrong continued to fall back on his last, specious bastion of defence yesterday in Austin by insisting that “the only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls [tests] I have passed with flying colours” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/lance-armstrong-issues-statement-over-usada-doping-charges/2012/08/23/839262ae-ed8f-11e1-866f-60a00f604425_story.html). Yet if such a misleadingly clean record was achieved with the complicity of his governing body, what hope remains for sports fans who would have wished to dismiss plausible conspiracy theories out of hand surrounding certain events in their chosen sports? If the UCI realised that by doing away with honesty and scripting a Hollywood-esque tale of glorious victory from the jaws of defeat in its place that fulfilled most of the storylines people seek from sport and guaranteed a windfall of cash, then why should we believe that FIFA acted from any different motive in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively? Perhaps more hard for people to believe, but no less worthy of investigation in the mistrustful atmosphere of the post-Armstrong world, is the conspiracy theory trotted about by some that Manchester City’s injury-time winner to secure the Premier League last season was not entirely organic. Another avenue for investigation lies in Spain, venue for the infamous ‘Operacion Puerto’, and a country where rumours that its successful national footballing team received “special” treatment from doctors can no longer be laughed away.

It is now the burden of responsibility of all sports fans, intrepid media personnel and those institutions that still haven’t lost sight of their decency and obligations to investigate any cloud of suspicion around their sport, rather than taking the easy route out of turning a blind eye and continuing business as usual. Otherwise, they leave themselves open to the kind of crushing disappointment and shattering unravelling of truth that cycling fans are grappling with now. Cricket fans might wish to believe that the problem of match-fixing was nipped in the bud when three Pakistani cricketers were banned in 2010, but a more plausible theory to advocate and investigate would be whether the International Cricket Committee banned them to quiet media efforts to probe gambling in cricket and thereby protect their own collusion with wealthy mafia who guarantee them higher incomes than their sport can provide. Those who dismiss such fear-mongering as the petty imaginings of fools disregard how the shoe has gone onto the other foot in the post-Armstrong world. Similarly, can we really trust the PGA to investigate Tiger Woods’s links to Anthony Galea – the Canadian doctor associated with doping athletes – thoroughly at the risk of jeopardising the career of an athlete who has brought staggering benefits to the game of golf and all those employed by it? There is no reason to believe Tiger Woods guilty, but at the same time, there is no longer any reason not to investigate and hopefully disprove any lingering threads of suspicion. This can be the only way in which an increasing number of fans are not lost to their sports through cynicism and a justifiable reticence to believe what they are watching.

For all those who cling on to the hope that it is next to impossible for a sportsman of Armstrong’s stature to lead a double life on and off the cameras in today’s paparazzi world, they have to ask themselves why it took over a decade for his deception to come to light. As with Tiger Woods who maintained an image of being a family man long after that world had ceased to exist, and countless politicians, powerful public figures can control their image through associating themselves with the right “advisors” (and Armstrong had countless of these) and offering important bodies sufficient incentive to get behind them. Sports administrators are as partial as any other person to the lure of money, and if making money means participating in the construction, dissemination and maintenance of a beautiful lie and selling the soul of their sport in the process, then that is what they have proved themselves capable of doing. From now on, nothing is too far-fetched, and no longer should true fans of any sport consider not coming to its rescue because they are enjoying potentially false storylines and epic dramas too much to care.

…while Wenger mixes unswerving faith with welcome dose of pragmatism

It is for the opposite reasons to those spelt out in my post about Alex Ferguson below (http://talksportblog.com/2012/08/20/ferguson-driven-silly-by-citys-relentless-spending/) that Arsene Wenger grows in stature year upon year. Which other manager sticks to his principles quite as bravely in the face of an overwhelming chorus of criticism, and in the conviction that football has so much more to offer its exponents and supporters than just a glittering piece of silverware? As Alex Song left, he was talking as much about what it would mean for his strategy as he did about how they had endeavoured to give him a meaningful education: “Part of our club is to influence people’s lives in a positive way.” If this also means demonstrating to them and supporters that the onus is on coaches to put in the hours to develop their players, rather than risk financial meltdown through adopting a model that no-one in the real world abides by, then so be it. Arsenal have slipped as a result of his determination, but there is no other elite manager who has even attempted to deal with the football-specific problems he faces every day. Ferguson’s instinctive reaction to the first sign of danger was to panic-spend on the best striker currently in the Premier League in a way that financially burdens his club; Wenger has instead made brave sacrifices because he wishes to protect a long-term vision of his club’s prosperity that doesn’t even enter the thinking of his counterparts.

However, today I want to instead applaud the more pragmatic measures Wenger is taking in the knowledge that a long-term vision can only be fulfilled if short-term goals are accomplished. Arsenal must find themselves in the Champions League places again at the end of the season to avoid permanent divorce with their fans, and Wenger has realised (surprisingly, some would say) that this is threatened currently by the lack of requisite quality in his midfield. His remark that Arsenal were maybe “one creative player short” after the Sunderland game tied in with the opinion of fans that the club still needs to compensate for the departure of Van Persie by adding more quality to their team. A player of Nuri Sahin’s reported characteristics and discipline will add to Arsenal’s technical excellence, and take some of the burden of responsibility in that area off Cazorla’s shoulders (as of Monday night, Arsenal were still locked in negotiations with Madrid over aspects of the transfer, and overcoming any stumbling blocks could prove a ‘swing’ factor to whether they maintain their residency in the top four this year). Equally encouragingly, Wenger is alert to the threat of falling short in defence should injury strike once again and has promised that Arsenal are trying to bring in “maybe one more defender.”

More generally, amid the doom and gloom, there are flashes of hope that Arsenal fans can justifiably entertain. Wenger has finally adopted a more pre-emptive, necessarily selfish approach to culling bad influences from the club by selling one of his more ungrateful students in Alex Song. Spending on new blood also means that, for the first time in a while, important players in the team have not yet had their heads turned by more glitzy proposals from other clubs and are fully behind Wenger’s plans. Cazorla in particular has already voiced his opinion in various matters concerning Arsenal, and his engaged presence bears all the hallmarks of a player with the ability to develop into the inspiring general that Wenger has been missing for years (mainly as a result of player disloyalty). It is also inevitable that a leading player like Jack Wilshere will, despite his best intentions, have his loyalty tested by subliminal doubts in the wake of another star’s departure from Arsenal. Negative thinking is contagious, breeds negative performances and thus contributes to the vicious cycle where players eventually have their doubts confirmed and want out of the club. Cazorla has happily arrived with exactly the opposite mindset, and should his commitment translate to success on the pitch, it will provide the earnestly loyal Wilshere with the reason he is looking for to banish those lingering doubts and play wholeheartedly for his boyhood club once again.

Ferguson driven silly by City’s relentless spending…

The most surprising aspect of Manchester United’s capture of Robin van Persie is the amount they have stumped up for his services. United have been squeezed both by Arsenal, who forced them to increase their original bid of £15 million by 9 million to £24 million before selling, and the player himself, who stands to enjoy a £50 million reward if he stays the length of his contract and millions more in bonuses should United win trophies during his time with them. For a club saddled with frightening amounts of debt, and a manager acutely aware that the largest weaknesses in his team remain in midfield, the glamour of such a move cannot entirely put to bed questions it prompts of Ferguson’s management. Is it possible that City, in the way they riled him last year through the 6-2 annihilation at Old Trafford, and tortured him with the illusion of a close-fought race before confirming the brutal truth of their superiority in the dying seconds of last season, have clouded his judgement? Reports are circling that Ferguson is planning a final stand against the new might of City over the next two years, and that the pursuit of van Persie was part of a strategy to bequeath a legacy worthy of Manchester United to his club. However, at the risk of sounding condescending, the modern-day manager has more to worry about than winning trophies at any cost, and should Ferguson’s incredulous outlay on an injury-prone player be a contributing factor to United’s continuing slide into financial trouble in the future, then his impact on the club will be up for review.

Besides, the neutral always associated Ferguson’s stature as a manager with his ability to address every one of the great challenges of their profession: from balancing the books to developing youngsters, from playing an entertaining style of football to winning trophies with tactical acumen. In his apparent desperation, it is doubtful he has even gotten that last part right: overloading his team with strikers and comparing them to the 1999 vintage overlooks the fact that his trophy-winning team were anchored by a dynamic, powerful midfield that is missing today. If reports linking Ferguson to Kaka are to be believed, then that would reassure that he has not completely lost sight of how to tackle a City team that is strong in every area of the pitch, but still doesn’t clear him of the charge of being financially negligent and strategically short-sighted. Kaka and Van Persie will both need replacing by the time Ferguson is believed to be pulling up sticks, and the perils of leaving a team’s long-term future in the vicelike grip of senior players can be seen at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho did the same thing and cast a shadow over the club that was not fully redeemed by their negative triumph in the Champions League.

Fans are in thrall to the win-at-all costs mentality that Mourinho has spread in the game, and Ferguson’s embracing of the same approach has reduced his appeal to the neutral. Watching Manchester United sweep all before them in the most unlikeliest of fashions in 1999, through thrilling attacking play and script-defying comebacks, was a transforming experience that sparked my love of football, but Ferguson has flattered to deceive since then. His 2008 crop that repeated Champions League success owed too much to the individual talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to really extend his reputation beyond being a pure winner in the same way to a creator of great teams thrilling to the mind and soul. Some pinpoint conceding goals like a hole-filled boat against Real Madrid at home in 2003 as the moment when Ferguson sacrificed his pure attacking instincts in favour of a more pragmatic, trophy-sure approach to playing the game. Since that concession, he has also struggled under financial constraints to replicate his successes with the kind of young players he was once famed for developing. Even though fans point to Tom Cleverly and Chris Smalling, there can be no doubt that Ferguson has changed as a manager to keep up with those who splurge to win and has sacrificed some of what made him previously stand out from the managerial crowd in the process.

Robin van Persie might bring him goals and confirm his place in the pantheon of great sporting managers, but one cannot help but feel the achievements that made Ferguson a sporting icon stood for more than just winning while paying scant attention to the collateral damage.

Nadal’s injuries hurt all of tennis

Sports fans have short memories and are quick to move on, but both Rafael Nadal’s stature and the nature of the injury suffered calls for a moment to pause and consider. What made Nadal’s initial withdrawal, from the Olympics, all the more worrisome was that it had swiftly followed a Wimbledon match he had completed without sustaining any obvious injury. In football, some of the most damaging injuries are those sustained by players for whom there was no obvious external cause – such as an opposition stud or a dangerous tackle. They suggest chronic, deeper-lying structural flaws that cannot be totally overcome by surgery, nor detected until they flare up again, nor calmed without the passage of time. Nadal’s passage has now extended from the Olympics to the Rogers Cup, to Cincinnati and now the US Open. What kind of injury worsens, or simply doesn’t go away even when the player is resting?

His absence was easily forgotten in the heat of Murray-mania during the tournaments at Wimbledon this summer, but will slowly extend a shadow over the ATP the longer he stays away. If Roger Federer continues his excellent form, fans will look for confirmation of the worth of this late-period revival in the form of a contest against his most testing opponent. Andy Murray might initially take a first major on the back of defeating one or both of Federer and Djokovic, but consistently holding sway with every member of the big three will be a challenge denied him in full until the return of its longstanding member. Part of the appeal of the top four players in men’s tennis is the way in which they constantly push each other to new levels of greatness in unfailingly epic encounters, which provides a preferable option to when one player lords it over the rest. Nadal is a vital part of this competitive appeal.

Apart from all that, it is never nice to see a player – particularly one as lodged in the affections of the fans as Nadal – suffer such unplanned changes of direction to their career. Sportsmen take pride in shaping their own destiny, and it would be cruel to see the most hardworking tennis player of all be denied the chance to play out the second half of his career on his terms.

Futile friendlies in need of a rethink

It was the sight of stars as worthy of protection as Fernando Torres, Santi Cazorla, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta trudging vacuously up and down the pitch during a meaningless friendly in Puerto Rico, just three days before they are required to put their bodies on the line in wholehearted contests in Europe, that made me wonder whether the Spanish national board really had its players’ best interests at heart. As happy as they are to help this golden generation win sporting glory for Spain, it is clear that they are almost as keen to exploit their talent whenever there is a suitable cash reward to be had. Playing in Puerto Rico reportedly earned the Spanish board three million Euros, with a portion of the rest of the money the friendly generated presumably going to FIFA.

The only way in which such bloated and callously scheduled international friendlies (coming as they do on the heels of two recently concluded major international tournaments) can be justified is if the money generated is entirely put towards assisting the smaller, host country’s football development. The one mitigating quality of the meaningless exercise that was carried out in Puerto Rico on Wednesday was witnessing the unabashed joy and enthusiasm that scoring against the world and European champions brought the Puerto Rican fans. This potential cannot be harnessed to good effect by a friendly from which almost all the money disappears into the pockets of the Spanish board, but might have longer-term benefits if the funds are instead used to build the footballing infrastructure Puerto Rico needs to take advantage of the popularity of the game throughout the country. All it takes is one footballing icon to emerge from Puerto Rico for a multitude of generations to be inspired to improve their lot through his example, and it would give international exhibition matches a reason to exist beyond fattening the wallets of the undeserved. It is also a cause that footballers like Andres Iniesta, who currently has valid reason to criticise the madness of flying halfway around the world to play in an aimless fixture, would fully identify with and get behind (all the more so if a more thoughtful date can be found to fit such matches in the international calendar).

In the interim, the players’ unions should demand that national boards and FIFA account for every dime that is earned from their stars plowing through these matches, so that we can rest assured that the money is being put to causes similar to the one described above rather than going directly into top officials’ bank accounts. It is an infuriating characteristic of FIFA and some associated national boards, that their role as governors of the world’s most populous game does not give them a sense of responsibility to explain every action that football’s stakeholders are unhappy about. After their recent shenanigans in awarding World Cups in suspicious circumstances whilst displaying a seemingly pervasive atmosphere of corruption – as well as the dubiousness of some high-ranking Spanish officials’ past activies (e.g Sandro Rosell’s business relationship with Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil and FIFA) – it is the least that they can be expected to do.

Van Persie seals exit from Arsenal hearts

So Robin van Persie got his way on every last detail of his desired migration from Arsenal: the big fat final pay check (reported to be £200,000 a week), the move to a club that can lend validation in the form of silverware to all the goals he could score for them – and his specific wish to trade Arsene Wenger and Arsenal for Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.

Had van Persie moved to City, Arsenal fans would have explained it away as a money-motivated decision, while transferring to Juventus might have even shown his respect and unwillingness to tarnish the relationship he had built with Arsenal. However, in choosing United, and flagrantly disregarding the particular chagrin and dismay such a choice is causing Arsenal fans, Van Persie has given a startling insight into the coldly self-centred soul of the modern day prima donna footballer that should make them and Arsene Wenger think twice before ever believing a player could be as loyal to one club and his vision again. When picturing Van Persie’s thought process as he deliberated which club to emigrate to, it is both deeply hurtful and a rude awakening to realise that his settling on United as the destination of choice might have paid little more than scant consideration to what this would mean to the club where he spent such a long part of his career. If his honeyed words on topics as ephemeral as sharing similar values as Arsenal and growing a bond with the club meant anything, it may yet trouble him on some small level to know that Arsenal fans have cast him out of their affections for good and that door might never open again. He joins Nasri on the list of exiles, a player of lesser meaning to Arsenal hearts than Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry – and that should yet trouble him.

Despite the force of feeling directed against van Persie from Arsenal fans, the moving on process is bound to be swifter and surer than last year. It is not a shock for anyone connected to Arsenal that he has left – least of all the board and manager, who have known there was no chance of him staying from the minute he concluded his meeting with them in May and they signed Lukas Podolski. His exit remains a loss and, by strengthening both Manchester rivals in two consecutive seasons, Arsenal have struck an effective blow towards voting themselves out of the title race (which may never have been in the board’s sights for this season anyway). Nevertheless, the new buys have added talent and, most refreshingly, hunger (Giroud’s career arc is a testament to that and the world’s biggest league gives him more incentive than ever to prove himself; likewise for Cazorla, who has never been at a bigger club, while Podolski is driven by a determination to resurrect his career and reputation), and this should at least give Arsenal a slim outside chance of challenging at the top of the table. If not, then they are a very strong contender for a top four berth and, as the last star of Wenger’s lost post-Invincibles team leaves to consign that project to the waste heap, that may not be a bad result for the season.

Arsenal face a process as tumultuous as a phoenix rising from the ashes of a fire, and right now, the ashes are still smouldering. They need to take it game by game, and showing the same focus against Sunderland on Saturday that was on display as they ran through Cologne despite the distracting presence of Van Persie would be a good place to start.

Woods’s wonky driver demands addressing

For all Tiger Woods’s gushing praise for the swing work he is doing with Sean Foley, and for all Hank Haney and Foley’s sense of righteousness about what is best for his game, it is remarkable how neither coach has managed to solve the simple and pressing issue of restoring his confidence with his driver. His much-vaunted swing changes under Haney and now Foley have coincided with the loss of accuracy in his drives that he had under Butch Harmon and which is needed to take advantage of his power-hitting. This in turn has rendered him a golfer without a driver for many recent rounds in major-tournament golf, a situation which wasn’t quite so critical when his three-wood could match the distance of many players’ drives. However, at the British Open and PGA Championships, there were clear occasions when his decision to drive an iron or 3-wood off the tee at long courses left him with a harder second shot to set up birdie chances because of the longer distances left to the pin. When push came to shove and he had to go for broke, like on the tenth tee at Kiawah, he resorted to the driver and then promptly hit such a reckless sailing hook that it is a surprise no-one was seriously injured.

This is crisis-management golf that does not allow one of the game’s naturally attacking players to play to his strengths. Tiger should have the confidence to attack each hole with the power of his driver, leaving him less pressure on the second shot, rather than (as at Kiawah) only resorting to it when he realised that the Plan B of 3-wood and iron tee shots he was regularly forced to employ had left him too far behind the leaders.

Part of the blame for this apparent blind spot must be significantly attached to his last two coaches, whose overly scientific inculcation of swing mechanics into Tiger’s movements through countless “reps” seems to have overlooked the fact that they have not helped their student rediscover a vital aspect of any golfer’s game in being able to drive straight and long. However, Tiger is also to blame for ignoring what his gut instincts as a golfer must be screaming at him every time he notices a distance disadvantage to Rory McIlroy’s serene 320-yard drives, or realises that he is increasingly playing rescue golf instead of the greens-in-regulation stuff exhibited by the new world No.1 and current best player. He has to instruct his coach to repair the parts of his game so patently missing on the course, such as his distance driving (and pressure putting), because all the reps intended to perfect a new swing will be useless if they do not enable him to use a driver once again.