Is rugby league in Britain caught in one long Groundhog Day?

Clubs change their teams in desperate bids to stay up so they can go through the same circus-like cycle again for another year, whilst the sport’s administrators are at each other’s throats. 

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Steve Mascord

Clubs change their teams in desperate bids to stay up so they can go through the same circus-like cycle again for another year, whilst the sport’s administrators are at each other’s throats. 

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Will Ralph Rimmer, new RFL CEO bring changes? ©BBC

 

Transfer deadline days like last week’s used to be a bit of fun for fans; instead, they now lay bare the financial failings of our clubs.

A couple of days after Salford – via a director – asked for fans to help them sign players for the Qualifiers, Leigh sold a bunch of stars and their owner announced he intended to depart next year.

All of this comes against the backdrop of a supposed battle for power between Super League clubs and everyone else, and as the ceremonial role as RFL president is handed over to Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester.

Sometimes the sport seems to be running on bald tires, ready to skid off the road and into a ditch.

Surely we have to eventually learn from clubs repeatedly getting themselves into financial bother by either trying to gain promotion or stay up that we’re stuck in a destructive Groundhog Day loop.

But there’s a deeper problem, isn’t there? There just doesn’t seem to be enough money to go around in rugby league. When we get to the back end of the year, the haves simply buy players from the have-nots and leave them the have-even-lesses.

When clubs have no reserve grade and profess to be worried about being able to muster 17 players, we have bigger issues than what play-off system works best and whether to keep the Super 8s.

Perhaps things need to get even worse before they can get better.

Currently we have teams representing mainly small towns and villages – there are exceptions – fighting over the scraps thrown to them by a TV company in return for selling subscriptions and advertising to those same small towns and villages. The less interested the next generation is in the game, the more money saved by the TV companies who’ll no longer have to fork out for the rights.

The financial way out for the Super League clubs, in particular, would seem to have been giving the likes of Catalans, Toronto and Toulouse a share of the domestic TV money and putting any overseas rights into a central pot as well.

That’s what happens in Australasia – the New Zealand Warriors are the most valuable team in terms of rights income from the Shaky Isles but they get no more from the Sky TV deal than any other club. It’s divvy’d up evenly.

But in the case of Toronto, anyway, it seems the Super League clubs won’t share the existing TV income which means their financial escape hatch is blocked – the Wolfpack will get the lions (or Wolf’s) share of any future North American contract.

Short-termism at its worst.

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Toronto Wolfpack are developing their own TV deals ©Toronto Wolfpack

If you looked at British rugby league from the outside, taking into account its regional peculiarities and national invisibility, what are its strengths?

In no particular order: Wigan, Leeds, St Helens, Warrington, Hull, rugby league being very popular and profitable in Australia, Wembley, Old Trafford and people in most of the world not knowing the difference between league and union.

Put another way, just as a cash-strapped club will sell of its players, cash-strapped rugby league still has IP of some value it can sell off – or at least leverage – to survive.

Wigan and Hull playing a Super League game in Wollongong this year is a nod in the direction of how British rugby league can buzz around the Australian honeypot and come away with a full tummy. Sydney.com is on the back of Wigan’s shirts all season, right?

Super League is on Australian TV and includes athletes the audiences there know. Why not set up a full-time office in Sydney and chase commercial deals? One or two such deals, or a free-to-air TV contract, would pay the salary of a NSW-domiciled staffer. Fish where the fish are; rugby league big fish are in Oz.

If the NRL won’t let Perth or Wellington or Ipswich or Port Moresby in, then why not invite them to join Super League?

Rugby league will probably never get into the centre of towns like Manchester and Liverpool with professional teams – it’s been trying and failing for too long and people in those cities think they know what rugby league is … and they aren’t interested.

This is where ignorance is the game’s friend in Toronto, New York, Belgrade and elsewhere they’ve never heard the term “northern sport”. Most fans at the Denver Test thought they were watching the All Blacks. If you’re a potential team owner, getting involved in rugby union at an elite level is far more expensive; the entry level in league is bargain basement by comparison.

Another advantage to exploit.

If the TV money goes down at the end of the current Sky deal, the sport might be bombed back to the part-time era. It’s time to identify the teams who can survive that apocalypse and combine them with others who can thrive outside in the radioactive no-British-TV-cash post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Everything must change; we just can’t keep going like this.

Steve Mascord

 

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World Cup 2018: A summer of the highest highs and the lowest lows for migration in football

The German and French football squads are heavily influenced by migration, but when it came to the most recent World Cup, it raised 2 contrasting points on its development.

Rosie Tudball

The German and French football squads are heavily influenced by migration, but when it came to the most recent World Cup, it raised 2 contrasting points on its development.

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Ozil pictured with Turkish president Erdogan ©Theguardian

It was a highly anticipated and greatly received summer for world football. With concerns and questions prior to the 2018 World Cup regarding Russia’s suitability to hosting the tournament, the world was, in some ways, pleasantly surprised by the country’s fantastic job at playing home to a World Cup full of drama.

Despite all the talk about Russia in the build up to the tournament, the main surprises and dilemmas came on the pitch rather than what was expected to happen away from the game. For a World Cup that surpassed so many expectations and really rose to the occasion, the aftermath of football’s most famed tournament is what has people talking, and quite recently, talk hasn’t been pleasant.

Less than a month after the showdown in Russia, Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil shockingly announced his retirement from international football. The news however was not as simple as the statement of ‘retirement’ seems, as the German star admitted his decision to retire was down to ‘racism and disrespect’ he had experienced whilst representing his country at the World Cup.

There was worry about Russia’s suitability to hold the World Cup, predominantly due to reports of racism, homophobia and crowd violence. Such worries have been buried with regards to the World Cup, as Russia have in the aftermath been the ‘good guy’, especially with reference to Ozil’s shock statement, as he admitted racism from the German press, fans and people from the footballing hierarchy in Germany was what made his mind up.

Taking the story out of context and pairing it with news prior to the World Cup, it would be unsurprising to assume that the deeply saddening insults he had received had come from the Russian side of things – which in some ways makes a devastating decision so much worse than it is. Imagine being so poorly treated, to the point of being racially exploited, by your own country, your fellow people, it is simply terrible and a great shame in modern day football.

The 29-year-old midfielder was born in Gelsenkirchen, a diverse city in west Germany, a city that is also birthplace to fellow Turkish-German Ilkay Gundogan. Ozil grew up in Gelsenkirchen, living their until he spread his wings in football and moved to Bremen. Despite living in Germany for the majority of his life, Ozil has been targeted for his Turkish roots coming from his parents, which has marked the saddening turn of events regarding his retirement.

It was a memorable World Cup for Germany, not for the right reasons after their group stage exit, but Ozil’s courageous statement has formed a rain cloud of German football, and a necessary headache for the DFB.

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Germany lost to Mexico on their way out of the 2018 World Cup ©RFI

In his statement that was posted on social media, Ozil said:

“The treatment I have received from the DFB and many others makes me no longer want to wear the German national team shirt. I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten.”

You would assume with such strong words and such a remarkable decision from an influential player at international level would be received with a strong and ‘need for change’ response. That expected response hasn’t come, and despite the overwhelming amount of support that Ozil has received on social media, the DFB and fellow German footballing authorities aren’t quite grasping the depth of the situation.

When you think of football in Germany, you think of efficiency, success and of course Bayern Munich. President of the club Uli Hoeness gave a strong opinion on Ozil’s decision, accusing him of ‘playing the race card’ after his disappointing World Cup campaign. Interestingly, Ozil’s deeply explained reasoning for his decision wasn’t mentioned by Hoeness, who has a big voice in German football when considering his role at the country’s biggest club.

It is certainly a concerning time for German football, and the DFB who in a statement responding to Ozil’s decision were reluctant to face the reality of the situation, rather than just the surface view of football and performances.

Leroy Sane spoke too about the situation in a surprising way. The Manchester City forward was left out of Joachim Low’s World Cup squad, despite his marvellous season in sky blue. The 22-year-old has spoken out about racism previously, and the struggle that his footballing father Souleyman Sane faced when playing football due to his Senegalese background. From a family of great talent and one that has been subject to racial abuse, it was surprising to hear Sane’s verdict on the situation, when given a platform to potentially speak out about racial profiling in football. Sane claimed that Ozil ‘needs some space’ and that ‘it was his decision’ to leave, following in the footsteps of fellow countrymen who have not spoken up on the internal social issue of ‘his choice’.

Is there pressure on German players to conform to the wishes of the DFB? It would certainly seem like it with the response in the press and within football about the Ozil situation.

There is certainly now pressure on the DFB to speak up and make changes with relation to migration in football, and if there is one thing to inspire a start with, it would be the 2018 World Cup.

France’s World Cup win marked an emphatic achievement by the French, and also highlighted the importance and celebration of immigration in football. The France 2018 World Cup winning side put Desmond Tutu’s wish of ‘a rainbow nation’ into practice, as their win marked a sensational example of the success of immigration in football. 90% of France’s squad are from a migrant background, a squad hosting a range of ethnicities, social backgrounds and religion, but most importantly coming together and being celebrated by the country that they represent, France.

Whilst their success may not fix all things negative in the world when the subject of migration is around, it certainly does prove a weighty point in football and the sincere importance to integrate cultures and backgrounds in the game with respect and dignity, something which has been contrasted by the behaviours of the DFB and the German press.

Germany will not only have to adjust to life without Mesut Ozil but will one day have to come to terms with what is a unique and disturbing case of mistreatment in the modern professional game – in the hope to not only fix an internal issue, but to inspire the country, and others, to follow in the footsteps of other supporting nations and take pride in integrating migrants.

Rosie Tudball

Rugby league’s culture war explained

Was the NRL proposal for international rugby league a sign they are finally taking this seriously – or an attempt to hijack the debate? Steve Mascord examines the battle lines in the fight over the sport’s future.

Steve Mascord

Was the NRL proposal for international rugby league a sign they are finally taking this seriously – or an attempt to hijack the debate? Steve Mascord examines the battle lines in the fight over the sport’s future.

 

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Elstone is looking to make an impact in rugby league ©SkySports

AFTER hearing a recent hour-long interview with the new Super League chief executive, Robert Elstone, I think it’s possible to discern a new cultural schism in the sport of rugby league.

On one side of this chasm are the Super League and NRL clubs, spoiling for a fight to maintain the status quo – and if there must be change, to lead it in the direction of their choosing.

On the other is everyone else, streaming their games on Facebook, holding Test matches in America, Nines tournaments in Holland and posting blogs and videos and podcasts. Oh, and Leeds.

Of course, one hole in this convenient scenario is that the chat in question was actually on an independent podcast – Jon Wilkin and Mark Flanagan’s Whippets and Flatcaps.

But that platform – it’s name, anyway – does fit with one of the apparent pillars of Elstone’s vision: the re-emergence of England’s north, the northern powerhouse. Like the 2021 World Cup, Elstone’s Super League is proud of the sport’s geographical roots.

The cultural cringe is gone; Eddie Waring might end up in a new logo.

By comparison, Elstone said Toronto made him nervous, there might be a case for fewer teams in Super League, he favoured getting rid of squad numbers and the free play after a turnover and said there were too many “splintered” international teams which made that arena in league look “fake”.

He is an unabashed admirer of State of Origin, which some Australian columnists are so fearful is going to become irrelevant in the face of international rugby league’s rise that they want Sam Burgess playing for NSW. Even arch traditionalist Phil Gould is favouring a shorter season and longer window for internationals.

Elstone likes Australian ideas like video referees at every ground and two referees.

 

The paradigm he reveres so much is, as we all know, extremely inward looking. Little appetite for expansion, trying to stop players leaving Australasia to represent their countries, a giant in-house media unit, limited interaction with the outside world and a focus on competition between two states.

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State of Origin is still the pinnacle of rugby league in Australia ©Stuff

The Aussies are holding their own American event next year, “round zero” in California, with no involvement with the promoter who will take the World Cup to North America six years later.

But it makes sense that someone who has left rugby league for soccer would come back nostalgic for his childhood sport’s past and would disavow some of our game’s dreamier ambitions.

Having seen the geographic spread and financial might of the round-ball game, one wouldn’t get too excited about Toronto or an Irish team full of people who live by the M62. That makes sense.

But the Super League clubs wouldn’t appoint someone who disagreed with them.

If Elstone wants the British game more like the Australian scene then so do those who gave him a job. Challenge Cup back to May and a return for Great Britain also got a mention at the media conference where he was unveiled.

Wigan owner Ian Lenagan even said he accepted the preservation of promotional and relegation only as “a trade-off” – his words not mine.

Perhaps the aversion to the Super Eights has something to do with it being an RFL property (with them getting the money first) rather than an altruistic objection to the concept.

But pinning everything on the absolute conviction that a return to rugby league’s past will preserve its future will make many as “nervous” as the current experiments. 

It seems like an overly simplistic question and a flat end to this column but … what if it doesn’t work?

Steve Mascord

The World Cup without Italy

How the 2018 FIFA World Cup has been a great tournament for Italian football fans, even without the mighty Azzurri.

Matteo Portoghese 

How the 2018 FIFA World Cup has been a great tournament for Italian football fans, even without the mighty Azzurri.

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Italy won the World Cup as recent as 2006 ©FourFourTwo

Although they did not enter the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930, Italy quickly became one of the most successful national teams in the history of the competition, having won their home tournament in 1934 in their very first appearance and repeating themselves 4 years later in Paris, where they retained the championship by beating Hungary 4–2 in the final at the Stade Olympique de Colombes. Between this exploit and the 1982 triumph in Spain, the mighty Azzurri made a reputation for themselves winning the 1968 Euros and reaching the Mexico 1970 final. This, together with the 1994 World Cup final loss and the 2006 success in Germany, established the team as one of the international football heavyweights.
That is why is sounded so strange that they did not reach Russia 2018; 60 years before, they had failed to progress to the finals due to Peter Doherty’s Northern Ireland[1] and this was, until now, the only time that Italy participated in the qualification process and did not reach the finals.

It is obvious that the day after losing to Sweden in the second round (play-offs), the team and the whole Italian football had to stand “trial” under the charge of missing the World Cup. Their flop was considered the lowest point in Italian football history and Gian Piero Ventura, after refusing to resign, left his job on 20th November 2017. While other “big guns” like Argentina (1970), England (1974, 1978, 1994), France (1962, 1970, 1974, 1990, 1994) and the rest had failed to reach the finals before, it felt like the end of the days for Italian fans.

But in spite of that, Russia 2018 proved to be one of the most interesting World Cup ever for them, too. First, it was the first time since Germany 2006 that the tournament was entirely shown on free-to-air TV in the country, almost thanks to the Azzurri’s absence. Mediaset, the mass media company founded in 1987 by former Italian prime minister and AC Milan president Silvio Berlusconi, broadcast all the games live[2]. Their journalists, commentators and pundits managed to analyse the WC without succumbing to the temptation to mention Italy or Italian based players all the time while covering the games.

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Italy celebrate their first World Cup win in 1934 ©ItalianWiki

Secondly, your favourite team being involved in a World Cup unavoidably captivate all your interest. No Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini or Daniele De Rossi on the field resulted in journalists and fans actually focused on every game and every team.
Undoubtedly, it is generally claimed that Italian sporting newspaper – with no Italy– dedicated less attention to the WC and chose to pay focus on calciomercato. This is something some would consider narrow-minded or even chauvinistic but – with Carlo Ancelotti (one of only three managers to have won the UEFA Champions League three times) appointed Napoli boss following Maurizio Sarri exit, legendary Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon moving to Paris Saint-Germain and Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Real Madrid for Juventus – the same would have happened in any other country. Furthermore, sports opinion and analysis websites provided interesting, original and refreshing articles and follow-up pieces[3] on the most remarkable WC ever, with defending champions Germany booted out before the knockout stage for the first time since 1938 and Argentina, Spain and Brazil all knocked out before the Semi-Finals.

To bring it all together, a FIFA World Cup without the 4 times winners Azzurri is still an odd and unusual experience, of course.
But, as Antonio Chiaese told the Guardian, the hope is that “this “apocalypse” will bring a shockwave to the football power system, starting from its elites – the federation and possibly Serie A – to strike a new deal for the next generations of Italian players”[4].
In addition to this, surveys about what went wrong are still in process. We are perhaps at year zero of a new era for Italian football and for the National Team, with former Lazio, Inter and Manchester City Roberto Mancini appointed manager six months after the team failed to qualify, willing to anything to bring Italy back where they belong.
It is in this context that the shock provided by a so strange and unusual World Cup can teach to the fans that no place is guaranteed for no team (ask Netherland) and sometimes it is worthwhile to just watch the games and enjoy the football, even though your team is not there. Broadcasters and sports journalists showed they could survive, after all. Fans can, too.

Matteo Portoghese

[1]           Ross McKee, Euro 2016: Italy and Ireland memories recalled ahead of game in Lille, «BBC News NI», 22nd June 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-36491302.

[2]           Alessio Caprodossi, Russia 2018 sarà il primo mondiale di calcio trasmesso da Mediaset, «Wired», 21st December 2017, https://www.wired.it/economia/finanza/2017/12/21/russia-2018-mediaset.

[3]           Marco D’Ottavi, Dzyuba è il giocatore più antipatico dei Mondiali?, «l’Ultimo uomo», 7th July 2018, https://www.ultimouomo.com/dzyuba-e-il-giocatore-piu-antipatico-dei-mondiali.

[4]           Guardian Readers and Tom Stevens, Where it went wrong for the teams who missed out on the World Cup, «The Guardian», 16th November 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/nov/16/world-cup-2018-fans-holland-italy-ireland.

The Sports Day dilemma

Does competitive sport still have a place in our schools?

Beth Fenner

Does competitive sport still have a place in our schools?

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Sports Day Sack Race ©D.taylor.shaut 

Sports Day, a day that splits the nation. Some have fond memories of winning medals or trophies, racing their friends to victory and relishing a competition that they could shine in. Others wish they could forget altogether, the day bringing back memories of humiliation and anxiety. In our increasingly politically correct society, sports days have been a hot topic of debate, with suggestions that they no longer have a place in schools because they are unfair on the children who do not have a sporting talent. But, is this really a reasonable argument for scrapping competition that gives a different group of children the platform to excel?

Last place. A place that no one strives for, but which is inevitable for at least one team or individual where competition is concerned. Someone will always have to lose, but is this really a good enough excuse to cut off competition altogether? Humiliation is a word that is often associated with losing in a sporting competition. Think of the England football team, currently in Russia, the nations hopes on their shoulders once again. Think of the fifty years the country has waited for global success, only to be disappointed each time. Despite all that, have they given up on competing altogether? No, they pick themselves back up and try again. Yes, it can be argued that they are paid to do it, but this same determination to never give up is reflected in competitive sport at all levels; if a school team doesn’t win a tournament, the simple solution is just to train harder. If our children see their role models and heroes fighting back after a devastating loss, they will too. That’s what competitive sport teaches us, to lose with integrity and to win with honesty and to stare at humiliation in the face and laugh back. It teaches us a number of values that are transferable into our everyday lives that many other subjects cannot. Values such as teamwork, leadership, communication, and discipline can all be learned through competition. Competition is a true reflection of life; sometimes we will fail, but we learn from our mistakes, pick ourselves back up and try again, a lesson that holds more importance for the majority than learning about equations or semi colons.

On an episode of Good Morning Britain[1], presenters Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid clashed over this exact issue of competitive sports days. Susanna articulated that because sport is so important and good for us, to just reward those good at sport will exclude children and discourage involvement in exercise, which would be detrimental to our children’s health. This can be seen in obesity figures This continues to be the case with statistics from 2018 suggesting that childhood obesity is prevalent in 20% of all children in year 6. These figures show little sign of changing over the past 10 years, indicating that we need to do more to get our children involved in sport and exercise. It can therefore be argued that the use of competitive sport would be detrimental to increasing participation in sport, as many children are put off when, despite trying their best, they cannot achieve the success of their friends. Consequently many people suggest that celebrating participation, by getting rid of all competition and introducing participation certificates and medals is the way forward to ensuring all children enjoy getting involved in sport.

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©Motherpedia

 

Despite the encouragement for participation in sport, academic exams still take an important role in our children’s education. This is a cause for contestation amongst those that champion competitive sport, as if people don’t think it’s fair for children that don’t excel physically, why is it fair to test those children who do not excel academically? Many dispute that exams are academic competitions, and once again there has to be a child that comes bottom. In fact, statistics from Childline[3] exemplify that there has been an 11% rise in counselling sessions given based on exam stress in the past two years. So if exams are detrimental to mental health of children, why are they not being discouraged like competitive sport is?

Figures suggest [4]that participation rates of children who have been involved in competitive school sport in the past 12 months are significantly lower than in 2012. Only 42% of children have played sport in their school in organised competition compared to 53% in 2012 and participation rates in events such as sports day have also decreased. In addition, just 76% of children aged 5-15 participated in competitive sport in or outside school in the past 12 months compared to 80% in 2012. These stark differences indicate that competitive sport is slowly starting to decline in our schools, reflecting our societies increasing concerns about this issue.

On balance, encouragement of participation is vital to combating our nations childhood obesity problems, as well as ensuring our children gain fundamental values imperative to development. After all, getting involved is what really matters and is what will inspire longevity in sports participation. However, children who excel in sport should be given their moment to shine, like their academic counterparts would be. As Piers Morgan stated, children are good at different things, so why can’t they be allowed to celebrate their success. Ultimately, sports day and competitive sport should be here to stay.

Beth Fenner

[1]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aza7M6X_yx0

[2]https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet-england-2018

[3]https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-we-do/news-opinion/exam-stress-overwhelming-for-thousands-of-children/

[4]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/648073/Taking_Part_child_statistical_release.pdf