Tag Archives: Sports

South Africa’s Baxter: ‘We can’t give the country hope’

British manager has taken Bafana Bafana to the last eight of the Africa Cup of Nations despite chaotic preparation and underfunding

South Africa head coach Stuart Baxter, centre, celebrates with his players after the win over Egypt. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP

There are times when Stuart Baxter surveys the agonies surrounding South Africa’s football team and asks himself whether the benefits really add up. “It’s not one of those you get used to,” he says. “You’re constantly wondering if it’s worth it. Constantly.”

It is easier to answer that question during a week when, against all odds, Bafana Bafana have hauled themselves back among Africa’s elite. Baxter calls South Africa “a country of extremes” and he should know, given that he is two years into his second spell managing the national team. On Saturday night the dial swung to paroxysms of euphoria as they outplayed Egypt, host country of the Africa Cup of Nations, in front of a baying home crowd and reached the last eight with a 1-0 win. For the 65-year-old Baxter, taking South Africa through to next Friday’s final would be the pinnacle of a globetrotting career that has never been defined by his Anglo-Scottish upbringing.

“Winning this would be the biggest,” he says, with Nigeria posing the next challenge in Wednesday’s quarter-final. “Without sounding egotistical I think this would represent a massive personal victory for me, partly because it’d be coming far more quickly than it should and partly because this is such a big tournament.”

Africa Cup of Nations: Hosts Egypt stunned by late South Africa strike

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It was 1996 when South Africa, only four years out of a lengthy Fifa suspension and still buoyant in the early stage of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, won their first and only Cup of Nations. Baxter has brought Mark Fish, their defensive cornerstone back then, into his backroom staff to maintain a connection but he is at pains to point out that so much has changed since then. At that time Bafana Bafana, managed by Clive Barker, could ride the wave all the way home; these days they face a smothering pall of negativity that he believes places unrealistic demands on the sport’s role.

“The whole country was full of optimism in ’96,” he says. “Full of hope and belief in the future. I think the team reflected that hope. When we beat Libya to qualify this time, the sports ministry wrote to me and said: ‘You’ve given the country hope’, and for me that’s where all this negativity stems from.

“If the country is dependent on a result by the national team to give it hope, we fail. We can give it hope for five minutes, but every defeat is met with such negativity because on wider level those hopes and dreams have been flattened. There’s too much going wrong in the country: getting the electricity shut down every day, the water shortages, the unemployment, you name it. The country’s not hopeful and they’re in a mental stage of depression; I think that gets reflected. They cannot accept any more negativity so one bad result is met by a tirade.

“We can’t give the country hope. We can’t. Only temporarily. I’m just happy we can give them a night off where they can wear the shirt proudly.”Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.

South Africa lost to Ivory Coast and Morocco during the group stage, squeaking past lowly Namibia in between, and only reached the knockouts on goal difference as one of the best third-placed sides. The dissenting voices were deafening at that point; Bafana’s early matches had been turgid, although Baxter points out that their preparation for this tournament verged on the disastrous, with funding issues seeing their schedule decimated and only one friendly, against Ghana, eventually being played. An already young, reconstructed squad arrived in Egypt badly undercooked and Baxter says their performance against the hosts, in which they obeyed his instructions to play an aggressive, attacking game to the letter, was the kind that banishes any weariness.

“That’s basically why I’ve hung in there, because the players have shown such an interest in wanting to be better, such a genuine pride in themselves when they get it right,” he says. “They’ve been so loyal and patriotic that I’ve always gone that extra mile.”

Baxter is used to doing that. His story is well told by now but a quick refresher course in his life and times underlines what a journey it has been. He has coached in eight countries, won titles in Sweden with AIK and South Africa with Kaizer Chiefs, bitten his lip when fired after two games in Turkey and contributed significantly to football’s explosion in Japan. Were it not for the Midlands inflection – Baxter was born in Wolverhampton – it would feel like a chat with Roy Hodgson, as much for his urbanity and unaffected studiousness as for his winding road here. But unlike Hodgson he has never heard a loud clarion call from home, despite a few offers earlier in his career.

South Africa celebrate during their win over Egypt. Photograph: Samuel Shivambu/EPA

“As it’s moved forward there hasn’t been the opportunity, and that’s because I fall between two stools really,” he says. “I’m not the exotic foreigner and I’m not the big-name English knight in shining armour; I’m neither the José Mourinho nor the Frank Lampard, and the game in the Premier League has become about perception.Advertisement

“I’m not saying that’s the alpha and omega of it, but it’s why I’m realistic to know I’m not going to have a queue of people saying: ‘He’s won leagues all over the world and he’s a Brit, let’s bring him back.’ I’ve become a little, not exactly cynical, but non-expectant. When the phone rings it’s from other places: I’m exotic and attractive there but back home I’m not.”

He fancies another crack at the Champions League, in which he competed with AIK, but feels confident in his capacity to set down roots anywhere in the world and describes himself as “pretty easily transportable”, moulding himself to the project at hand. “I’m not this instructor going round the world teaching football according to the theories of Stuart Baxter,” he says. Perhaps there is an extent to which, in an era where philosophies and grand visions tend to seduce more than sheer practicality, that has held him back too.

Not that there will be any sense of regret when South Africa walk back out at Cairo International Stadium, the venue stunned into dumbfounded silence by Thembinkosi Lorch’s 85th-minute winner those few short days ago, to face Nigeria. “We have to do it as underdogs again,” he says. “They are one of the best, but if we can put together a gameplan that gives them the problems we gave Egypt then we have a chance. At this stage it sometimes takes on its own life. The difference in the squad now, the belief they have, is absolutely night and day.” Dawns like that are why, for all the brickbats and moments of doubt, Baxter comes back again and again.

SOURCE: The Guardian, UK


Premier League 2018-19 review: failures and surprises

From Manchester United to Shkodran Mustafi, some of those who may well wish to forget this past campaign

Welcome to the review of the 2018-19 Premier League season. We have nominated some contenders for this category but this is just to get the discussion going: offer your suggestions below the line …

Manchester United

A purple patch following José Mourinho’s sacking aside, it has been a truly disastrous season for United. There are any number of overriding images from this latest sorry damp squib – Alexis Sánchez, whose £490,000-a-week wages translate to an hourly rate of around £2,900, skulking around nonplussed, Fred floundering in countless midfield duels, Paul Pogba strutting round and simultaneously causing Roy Keane to self-combust, an off-colour David de Gea making yet another uncharacteristic error or the grimace on the face of Phil Jones. Take your pick, it has been a torturous time. The final descent of Mourinho’s reign was spectacularly sullen but, six months on, things are not much better. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has declared this as the end of the road for some players – Sánchez’s limp down the tunnel at Huddersfield was symptomatic of an entire campaign – and, in truth, the chance to start over cannot come soon enough.The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh

Signed for £17m last summer, the winger is Brighton’s club-record signing but has badly struggled to live up to that fee. A quick glance at his numbers says it all: this time last season, Jahanbakhsh was heading into the World Cup with Iran off the back of a glittering campaign in which he scored 21 goals for AZ Alkmaar. Not only have the goals dried up, they have been non-existent, with Jahanbakhsh still to register a single goal or assist for Chris Hughton’s side. He has completed 90 minutes just three times in what has been a difficult season, punctuated by niggling injuries and compounded by conceding a soft penalty at Arsenal earlier this month. The 25-year-old studied to become an auto mechanic before turning professional in the Eredivisie and, despitestalling in his maiden season in Sussex, Hughton has expressed confidence Jahanbakhsh will fare better second time around.

Jahanbakhsh is challenged by Spurs’ Danny Rose last month. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

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Yerry Mina

For an entourage of Everton officials, deadline day last August was spent in Spain. A lot of effort went into frenetically arranging meetings, medicals and signing off paperwork as they got a £28m deal for Mina and a season-long loan for André Gomes over the line. Everton are yet to fully reap the rewards of that labour. Mina formed a trio of headline arrivals from Catalonia, with Lucas Digne having already signed from Barcelona. Gomes and Digne have enjoyed excellent campaigns but the same cannot be said for the towering Colombia defender. Mina did not start a game for Marco Silva’s side until November because of a foot problem and has not featured since March following a hamstring injury picked up on international duty. Mina has not become useless overnight but his first season at Everton has been desperately disappointing.

Yerry Mina reacts after a goal for Manchester City during their 3-1 home win over Everton in December. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

Shkodran Mustafi

That there is, a rather cruel, 10-minute montage of Mustafi’s mistakes doing the rounds speaks volumes. The Arsenal defender has too often proved a defensive liability, typified by his hopeless display in defeat against Crystal Palace, when he gifted away not one but three goals. On the face of it, signing Mustafi for £35m three seasons ago appeared a masterstroke, a player Arsène Wenger had been crying out for. Arsenal had snapped up a World Cup winner, someone with – stereotypically at least – all of the desired attributes synonymous with a German centre-back. He seemed a cure to their decade-long defensive woes. What Arsenal really acquired was a flimsy imitation of a top-quality defender. For Mustafi, along with Denis Suárez, who mustered up just four substitute appearances after being borrowed from Barcelona in January, it has been a poor campaign.

Shkodran Mustafi on his way to a hat-trick of Palace gifts. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images

Jean-Michael Seri

After being touted for a move to Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, when the £25m midfielder rocked up at Aldershot Town last summer for a Fulham pre-season friendly, his arrival was greeted with considerable fanfare. Seri’s signing was supposed to be a major coup but, barring the odd glimpse of class, Fulham must feel short-changed. Before a ball had been kicked, Fulham fans were giddy at the prospect of Seri, and the raft of new faces, catapulting them into the upper echelons of the Premier League. Therein lies the problem. Seri has little appetite to play in England’s second tier, and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, another who endured a miserable debut season, led to the break-up of a trusty three-man midfield that had Fulham purring in the Championship: Tom Cairney, Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen. They could do worse than leaning on that trio again next season. For Seri, signed from Nice, a return to Ligue 1 surely beckons.

SOURCE: The Guardian, UK

Isha Johansen is in charge, according to FIFA, but has a big fight at home

Even before she became one of the handful of women ever to have run a national soccer federation, Isha Johansen had carved out a prominent profile in the sport.

Isha Johansen is the president of Sierra Leone’s soccer federation. At least in FIFA’s eyes, that is.
Isha Johansen is the president of Sierra Leone’s soccer federation. At least in FIFA’s eyes, that is. Photo: Pool photo by Adrian Dennis

Long before she became a fixture at international gatherings and a presence on the decision-making committees that govern the game, Johansen entered Sierra Leone’s soccer scene by founding a club that offered street children equipment in exchange for a promise that they would attend school. The club grew, once attracting a visit from David Beckham, and eventually established itself in the country’s top league.

Johansen, meanwhile, quickly rose through soccer’s governance ranks as a rare woman in the upper echelons of a sport long run by men. With her carefully crafted public image and English boarding school education, she was politically savvy enough that she was soon rubbing elbows with power brokers like Sepp Blatter and Gianni Infantino and stars like Cristiano Ronaldo.

Yet at home in Sierra Leone, where Johansen has been a lightning rod for controversy since even before she became federation president, her life in soccer has been an entirely different experience. And now she is facing a reckoning.

On Monday, a court in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, will hear final submissions in a two-year corruption case against Johansen and her top deputy. The government has accused Johansen of abusing her office and misappropriating funds; she has insisted that the case is politically motivated.

It is, in fact, several other things, too: a test of anticorruption efforts and impartial justice in Sierra Leone; a referendum on FIFA’s ability to protect its member associations from government interference; and a window into a broader question about female empowerment in soccer, and the consequences for one woman who broke one barrier only to run into more.An independent press needs your supportDiscover the impact of our journalism with unlimited access to The Times

The verdict in Johansen’s case, which could come within days, will be closely followed in West Africa but also thousands of miles away inside FIFA’s glass-and-steel headquarters in Zurich, where Johansen has been a regular visitor. FIFA already has taken Johansen’s side in one respect: Citing violations of its rule about government interference in soccer, it suspended Sierra Leone’s federation last year to protest the removal of Johansen from office pending the resolution of her case.

“This ordeal has in a sense taught me about the real dirty side of the beautiful game,” Johansen said. “I did not steal, and I am not corrupt.”

Johansen, 53, said she had never planned to become a national soccer federation president. She said she entered the race only to lead Sierra Leone’s F.A. in 2013 to “ruffle a few feathers,” but late in the campaign she found herself as the only candidate after a process run by a FIFA-backed committee disqualified all of her opponents.

Johansen’s rivals — two were ruled out because of their links to gambling interests, and another because of a residency requirement — complained bitterly that FIFA had put its thumb on the scale to ensure victory for a female candidate, a result that would provide FIFA’s president at the time, Blatter, with a public relations coup and another loyal supporter in Africa. A poisonous campaign bottomed out when a prominent supporter of one of Johansen’s opponents took to the radio to brand her “a prostitute.”

Much of the anger at her candidacy and later her victory, she said, was fueled by a news media that she accused of being paid by elements of the gambling industry, and because of her pledge to clean up soccer in Sierra Leone.

“I inherited a chronically corrupt system,” Johansen said. “It was corrupt to the core from top to bottom.”

Challenges came in quick succession, though. Sierra Leone’s top club teams responded to Johansen’s presidency by boycotting matches in the country’s top league, which was soon embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. At the same time, an Ebola outbreak that started in neighboring Guinea quickly spread across West Africa, turning Sierra Leone’s national team — and others from the region — into international soccer pariahs.

By 2017, with Johansen facing corruption charges and removed from her post by a government anti-corruption body, FIFA was forced to release a public statement insisting that it still considered her the rightful president of Sierra Leone’s soccer federation.

That backing, and her prominent roles in the corridors of power of overseas — Johansen sits on FIFA’s member associations committee and is Sierra Leone’s first representative on African soccer’s governing council — only protected her for so long.

Last September, Sierra Leone’s anti-corruption commission seized control of the Sierra Leone federation’s offices and forced out Johansen in a corruption probe, in which nearly a dozen original charges have since been reduced to only three.

Two of the charges accuse Johansen and the federation’s general secretary, Chris Kamara, of misappropriating a $50,000 grant that prosecutors said should have been used to conduct bone scans on youth players to confirm their ages. The other allegation relates to the repayment of a $5,000 loan made by Johansen’s Norwegian husband, Arne, who at the time was the managing director of the national team’s principal sponsor, the cement company Leocem.

Johansen and her lawyers have argued that the scans were completed locally instead of overseas, saving on costs, and that it was not a stipulation of the donor, African soccer’s governing body, that the funds be spent solely on the age scans. Francis Ben Kaifala, the head of the anti-corruption commission, disagreed; he said local laws required that grants be spent only for a specific purpose.

“If money is given to buy a house and you use it to fund travel, then even if travel is not a criminal thing, it could still be misappropriation,” Kaifala said in a telephone interview.

In the case of the Leocem loan, Johansen said that she was not even in the country when her husband made the payment to cover the national team’s costs to travel to a game outside the country, and that the $5,000 he later received was merely a reimbursement.

The defense has produced detailed paperwork to explain the payment; Kaifala said the documents were either forgeries or created after the event. “All the receipts they are bringing, we say they are fabricated,” Kaifala said. Johansen said prosecutors had not sought testimony from her husband or CAF officials that might clarify the dispute.

FIFA, whose officials privately speak about tiring of the yearslong saga, uneasily waded into the fight last October, inviting a delegation from Sierra Leone — which included the country’s vice president, attorney general and minister of justice — to Zurich for talks. Johansen attended, too. After the meeting, FIFA said its sanctions against Sierra Leone would not be lifted until Johansen’s trial concluded. It also said Sierra Leone’s government had made a commitment to investigate the withdrawal of funds from the soccer federation’s bank account — money sourced to FIFA grants — that were made after Johansen’s ouster.

Whatever the outcome, the case has gripped the soccer-mad nation, where organizational chaos continues unabated. Only now, five years after its league shut down in protest of Johansen’s election, have domestic league matches resumed, with a new government-backed league formed under the auspices of a federation that is not recognized by FIFA. Johansen, who founded a team that once played in the old league, labeled it a rogue operation.

But she also said she had no intention of giving up the fight to keep her post. The FIFA suspension has delayed elections anyway, meaning her term in office has been extended beyond the original date when it was to end.

“I won’t go away just because somebody says, ‘We will bully you, we will intimidate you, defame you,’” Johansen said. “My only crime is that I refused to toe the line of entrenched loyalty to corruption within the system.”

SOURCE: The New York Times

Caster Semenya: IAAF moves from fighting the abnormal to prohibiting the normal

South African athlete, Caster Semenya, has lost her case against the athletic governing body, IAAF, which means that she will have to take medication to lower her testosterone levels if she wishes to continue competing internationally in running events.

Last year, the IAAF introduced new regulation for female athletes with “difference of sexual development” (DSD). Athletes with circulating testosterone of five nanomoles per litre of blood (5nmol/L) or above and who are androgen-sensitive, have to meet certain criteria if they wish to compete internationally. One criterion is that DSD athlete must use medication to reduce their blood testosterone level to below 5nmol/L for a continuous period of at least six months.

Semenya felt that the IAAF was targeting her, specifically. She took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but the court rejected the 28-year-old athlete’s challenge against the IAAF’s new rules.

Although CAS found the rules to be discriminatory, it also said that they were “necessary, reasonable and proportionate”.

Difference of sexual development

So what exactly is DSD and does a serum testosterone level above 5nmol/L really confer an unfair advantage in running events? DSDs are a group of rare conditions that are acquired before birth, where the reproductive organs and genitals don’t develop as expected. While the condition can be inherited, it usually occurs at random.

A person with DSD may have a mix of both male and female sexual characteristics. For example, they may be genetically female, but with reproductive organs that are of the opposite sex (or the other way around), a combination of both male and female, or not clearly either.

As the testes are the primary site of testosterone production, if a female is born with these male reproductive organs, their testosterone level will be high, often reaching male levels.

Testosterone is involved in many factors that may confer athletic benefit including increased muscle size and strength, along with the ability for the blood to deliver oxygen to those working muscles. This is why elite male athletes are generally faster and stronger than females – and also why males don’t compete against females in most sports. Semenya has high levels of testosterone so she will undoubtedly have at least some associated metabolic benefits.

How much benefit testosterone gives female athletes is difficult to define as women cannot convert testosterone into its more potent form and do not possess the same numbers of testosterone receptors (to carry out its actions) as men. The IAAF level of 5nmol/L is still high for female levels, which normally range from 0.1 – 1.8nmol/L. Judging the actual benefit of testosterone and where to draw these lines would require a lot more research and investigation.

Where does it stop?

However, Semenya hasn’t artificially altered her testosterone levels and while her condition is rare – and gives her a large advantage as a track athlete, they are naturally occurring – so is it not discrimination to make her change her body to compete? Does this take the phrase “all men are equal” to the extreme and try to make everyone the same, even by artificial measures? And where does this stop? Many genetic physical attributes can contribute to athletic performance such as height, muscle composition and aerobic capacity.

Dutee Chand, the female sprinter who was also barred from competing against women in 2014 because her natural levels of testosterone exceeded guidelines for female athletes, publicly expressed her disbelief as to why she was penalised for her natural body when she competes against women who are taller and from wealthier backgrounds, which certainly put them at an advantage.

Cases like Semenya and Chand will always be contentious and generate more questions than solutions, and there will always be disagreement among athletes and fans over the right way to approach this sensitive issue in elite sport.

Spurs vs Ajax – Champions League semi-final first leg player ratings: who was impressive and who fail?

It is advantage to the Dutchmen following Ajax’s flying start in north London on Tuesday night, but which players impressed as Tottenham Hotspur lost the Champions League semi-final first leg and who let themselves down?

Kieran Trippier was substituted and replaced by Juan Foyth CREDIT: ACTION IMAGES

Tottenham Hotspur (3-5-2)

Hugo Lloris

Helpless for the Van de Beek goal but did excellently with his legs to prevent the Ajax midfielder from scoring a quickfire second. 6/10

Toby Alderweireld

Failed to hit the target with a free header from Trippier’s free-kick. Helped to marshal Tadic as Spurs grew into the game later on. 6/10

Davinson Sanchez

A difficult evening in which he appeared to be targeted by his former club. His recovery speed was useful when Ajax countered. 5/10

Jan Vertonghen

Forced to leave the field in worrying circumstances. Was barely able to stand after an accidental collision with Alderweireld had left him bloodied and dazed. 5/10

Kieran Trippier

Played Van de Beek onside for the opening goal. Deliveries were inconsistent but crosses for Alderweireld and Llorente created two of Spurs’ best chances. 5/10

Danny Rose stretches for the ball midway through the first half CREDIT: EPA

Christian Eriksen

Never as influential as he would have wanted to be. Spoke volumes that some of his best moments were when he helped out defensively. 6/10

Victor Wanyama

Had plenty of work to do to plug the gaps in the midfield. Isolated early on and he struggled with the intensity of the Ajax pressing. 5/10

Dele Alli

Looked a different player after Sissoko’s arrival. Allowed to push further forward, he tested Onana with a fierce effort. 6/10

Danny Rose

Boisterous and tireless down the left, where Ziyech kept him busy. Forever willing but final pass or cross was generally snuffed out. 6/10

Lucas Moura

The home side’s most industrious and creative attacker. His scarpering runs caused problems for Ajax. Would have hoped for one clear chance. 7/10

Fernando Llorente

Should have hit the target with a first-half header from Trippier’s delivery. Had moments of joy against Blind, but not enough. 6/10

Substitutes: Gazzaniga, Foyth, Walker-Peters, Davies, Dier, Skipp, Sissoko

Ajax (4-2-3-1) 

Andre Onana

Commanding from crosses against a considerable aerial threat from the home side. Occasionally loose in his distribution. 6/10

Joel Veltman

Not afraid to tussle with Rose in the early exchanges, then produced timely tackle on Lucas. Booked for wrestling with Alli after losing possession. 5/10

Matthijs de Ligt impressed once again CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Matthijs de Ligt

Visibly and audibly the leader of the side, despite his tender years. More than willing to engage Llorente in a physical battle. 8/10

Daley Blind

Forward passing into midfield was a theme of Ajax’s early dominance. Perhaps fortunate to avoid a booking for a clumsy hit on Lucas. 7/10

Nicolas Tagliafico

Rightly booked for preventing a Spurs counter-attack with a late lunge on Eriksen. Scared Lloris with a fizzing low drive after the break. 6/10

Lasse Schone

Sloppier in possession than his team-mates. Always busy, though, and always bustling around Eriksen and Alli in the Spurs midfield. 6/10

Frenkie de Jong

Looks to be worth every penny of the £65 million Barcelona have spent on him. Repeatedly nicked the ball and always wanted possession. 8/10

Hakim Ziyech

Sleek and sharp in possession. Terrific pass picked out Van de Beek for the opening goal. More of a passenger as Spurs grew stronger. 7/10

Matthijs de Ligt impressed once again CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Donny van de Beek

Had the composure and the skill to sit Lloris down before finishing into the corner, then nearly scored a second a few minutes later. 8/10

David Neres

Provided the speed in behind the Spurs defence when the other attackers dropped deep. Struck the foot of the post after rapid counter. 7/10

Dusan Tadic

Generally menacing but not as productive as in previous rounds. Unable to hold the ball up on the occasions when Ajax were forced to go long. 6/10

Tottenham’s new stadium: as magnificent as they say, it’s a home victory for Spurs

Around the pitch and in the stands, the Tottenham Hotspur stadium is both magnificent and intimate, but the jarring exterior is mid-table fodder

The stadium’s bars have beer brewed on site. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

It was, for a while, all about the cheese room. The new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, it was reported, was to offer its premium customers a selection of specially sourced cheeses, a concept which encapsulated how far the football fan has come from those black-and-white, crackly-voiced days when a gristly pie was all you got, an edible version of the brown balls that were hacked around the Flanders-like mud of those bygone fields – a distillation (conceptually speaking) of the catarrh of a million Capstans.

Which, goes the narrative, was how it should be. In the tribal warfare of football you don’t want the food to be too nice. And what could be more Waitrose, more metropolitan elite, more Highbury and Islington than a range of fermented curds? What could be less likely, except perhaps CO2 foam or a flame-retardant blanket, to put fire in the belly?

Then it vanished. The Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, announced that there was not and never had been a cheese room in the stadium plans. There was an accompanying shift in the presentation of the stadium. If much of the advance publicity was about the treats for the high-paying customers – a glass-walled “tunnel club” from where you can watch the teams preparing to go on the pitch; a “sky lounge” from where you can view both the game and a sweeping panorama of London – I’m now told, by Christopher Lee, of the project’s architects, Populous, that the priority is to make a “democratic” stadium. By this he means such things as ample concourses where all the paying punters can roam, a “market place” where you can consume multiple different kinds of food and beer brewed on site. The idea of a segregated “corporate level” is, he says, “archaic”. Those people paying more “shouldn’t be in a little bubble”.

The stadium’s bars have beer brewed on site. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

The tunnel club and the sky lounge are very much still there, and no one should be under any illusions that the aim is not to maximise revenue at every opportunity, but in Lee’s account “it’s all about experiences”, and everyone is invited to join in.

He makes an analogy with airlines and the intermediate classes they create between economy and business. At the Tottenham Hotspur stadium there are 70 hospitality boxes, compared with the 150 at Arsenal’s 13-year-old Emirates stadium (which, like the former Olympic Stadium, Wembley and a proposed new stand for Fulham, was also designed by the prolific Populous). There are instead “loges” – small-scale, semi-private dining areas that might be hired by families or groups. These are still not cheap, of course, but it’s still better than having the sandwich of deathliness that comes with a corporate zone that rings a stadium.

One might challenge Lee’s concept of democracy, with its emphasis on access to craft beer as a sign of equality. One might question his analogy of the inert interior of an aeroplane with the hopefully energising environment of a sports ground. But to judge by a visit to the first game played at the stadium – an under-18s match against Southampton last Sunday – his design does what he says. The concourses feel generous, with robust but handsome finishes in polished concrete and blue-painted steel. It’s not like the old White Hart Lane, which I knew well, whose bunker-like interiors made spectators feel like the huddled survivors of a nuclear conflagration, scavenging for crisps and tea from the inadequate food counters. Nor is it Wembley, the place where Spurs have spent their exile during the rebuilding of the stadium, whose grey corridors evoke the part-time conference centre that it, in fact, is.

The exterior of the Tottenham Hotspur stadium. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

The food and beverage on offer, pitched between gristle pies and White Stilton Gold, is a touch more varied and imaginative than you might expect. While the market place is lively, there are also areas where the invitations to consume are relatively restrained. It avoids, just, feeling like a shopping mall.

All of which is secondary – even now, in an era when matches are “experiences” – to the actual business of playing and watching football. Here the stadium is at its best, attaining the desired combination of magnificence and intimacy, with the stands placed as close as reasonably possible to the edge of the pitch and the upper levels rising at the steepest permitted angle. The kneeroom in front of each seat, which had become pointlessly generous in some recent stadia, is 4cm less than (for example) at the Emirates, which allows for greater compression. The design is helped, too, by advances in the technology of grow lights for the grass, which allow the architects to worry less about getting sunshine inside.

A view of the concourse of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

A view of the concourse of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

The main talking point is a single bank of 17,500 seats at the south end of the pitch, which as well as presenting an imposing wall of humanity contributes to an asymmetry that gives the bowl character. Around the top level of the stands runs a sinuous horizon, rising in the centre of each stand to accommodate more seats and falling at the corners. This helps to create the feeling that you are in a single space, rather than an assemblage of structures for spectating.

Most important of all is the acoustic, an intangible on which depends much of the success of Spurs’ billion-pound-plus investment, and the first signs are good. The under-18s game, intended to test the stadium’s operations in advance of more serious contests, was limited to a crowd less than half the capacity of 62,062, but those who were there tested the sound with old songs, which bounced nicely around their new home.

The new Tottenham Hotspur stadium is trying to do many things, in catering to its multiple audiences and commercial imperatives while hanging on to what you might call soul. Yet another layer of difficulty is added by the fact that, with the help of a quite amazing mechanism whereby the grass pitch slides away to reveal an artificial layer underneath, it will host American football. What the design doesn’t achieve is to bring all this complexity together into a coherent whole: the exterior, while communicating a generalised sense of oomph and power, is a mess, with wannabe soaring curves grinding against a rectangular grid of cladding panels, and with ideas borrowed from here and there fighting for attention.

The U18 Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton on 24 March. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

My daughter and I used to share a little joke, as the old White Hart Lane hove into view from the train windows. “That’s the most beautiful building in London,” I said. It wasn’t, and the new one isn’t. In its ugliness it is like the outside of almost every stadium in the Premier League, if not the world. And almost none of the Spurs fans delighting in their new home last Sunday, relieved to be there after an opening delayed by six months, cared at all.

On which note I will leave you for a while. I will be taking a sabbatical until September, after which I will return with new energy. Au revoir.

José Mourinho sacked by Manchester United after 2 years

José Mourinho has been sacked as Manchester United manager following Sunday’s defeat at Liverpool, ending a tenure that began in May 2016.United finally lost patience with a head coach who was not adhering to the club’s core attacking values and who had overseen their worst start to a campaign for 28 years.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho watches Paul Pogba during their game against Tottenham. Photo: Paul Currie/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Mourinho was also relieved of his duties due to a transfer spend of around £400m on 11 players that, it is understood, the club insist were all the Portuguese’s choice. In addition to the disquiet regarding the side’s stultifying style, there was further disappointment at Mourinho’s development and improvement of United’s younger players. The club also took into account the growing unhappiness from fans at the direction of the club under Mouinho.

Michael Carrick will take charge of training on Tuesday, before an interim boss is appointed. That move is expected to happen before the end of the week.

That caretaker role will last until the end of the season but this will not be Carrick, Nicky Butt or anyone from within the club. Instead, following a thorough and extensive process will have Mourinho’s permanent successor in place for next season.

A poor start to the Premier League season has seen United slip 19 points behind the leaders, Liverpool, and fall off the pace in the hunt for a top-four place. They have won only once in six league matches, drawing during that sequence with struggling Southampton and Crystal Palace.

The club issued a statement on Tuesday morning which read: “Manchester United announces that manager Jose Mourinho has left the club with immediate effect.

“The club would like to thank Jose for his work during his time at Manchester United and to wish him success in the future. A new caretaker manager will be appointed until the end of the current season, while the club conducts a thorough recruitment process for a new, full-time manager.”

In two full seasons at Old Trafford, Mourinho won the Europa League and League Cup (2016-17) before finishing second in the Premier League last season and reaching the FA Cup final. In that period since replacing Louis van Gaal, United’s spending stands at £364.3m on eight buys.

SOURCE: The Guardian, UK

Champions League: Man United to face PSG and Liverpool face Bayern

  • Spurs set for Dortmund test in last 16 of competition
  • Manchester City land Schalke; Atlético meet Juventus

Manchester United face a monumental task to progress in the Champions League after being drawn to play Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16, while Liverpool face a tough tie against Bayern Munich, with Tottenham and Manchester City also paired with German opposition.

United’s defeat in Valencia last week meant they missed the opportunity to finish ahead of Juventus in their group after the Italian champions were surprisingly beaten by Young Boys in the final match of the group stages. That ensured José Mourinho’s side entered Monday’s draw as one of the eight runners-up and means they must now face a resurgent PSG side which beat Liverpool to top spot in Group C.

PSG coach Thomas Tuchel has confidence in his Ligue 1 leaders, but warned against complacency. “We have the quality to win at Old Trafford. I’m confident for my team, but it’s a great test, a challenge,” he said. “The round of 16 is always tough. Manchester United have a lot of experience in this competition, which they’ve won several times. I’m neither satisfied nor unsatisfied by the draw.”

Liverpool were the last to be drawn, with Jürgen Klopp handed an opportunity to avenge his defeat to Bayern in the 2013 final as manager of Borussia Dortmund, with an intriguing showdown with fellow five-time winners Bayern. They are currently third in the Bundesliga, nine points behind Lucien Favre’s Dortmund, who finished ahead of Atlético Madrid in their group and will also provide stiff opposition to reach the last eight.The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

The Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic believes the Germans face a “tough nut to crack” in tackling Liverpool. “Liverpool are the hottest team right now and top of the Premier League table,” he said. “They play good football, very physical and with a high tempo. We’re looking forward to playing there. These are the challenges you have to master in your career.”

Competition favourites City were handed what appears, on paper at least, to be the most straightforward task against Schalke, who have struggled in the league this season under 33-year-old coach Domenico Tedesco. “This competition is getting hard,” said City’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain. “There are big draws and big games coming. Teams that are struggling in their league have done very well in the Champions League. German clubs are always very dangerous.”

Atlético will face Juventus in potentially the pick of the other ties, while second favourites Barcelona were paired with Lyon, Roma face Porto and holders Real Madrid were paired with Ajax.

Uefa later confirmed the dates of the last-16 ties, which will see United host PSG on 12 February, with the second leg in France on 6 March. Spurs host Dortmund on 13 February and will play in Germany on 5 March. Liverpool’s first leg against Bayern will be at Anfield on 19 February, with the return fixture in the final set of games on 13 March. City head to Schalke on 20 February and are at home on 12 March.

Ballon d’Or: Modric dethrones Ronaldo, Messi – Full results

Here’s a full breakdown of who won what, and who finished where.

Luka Modric, Ada Hegerberg and Kylian Mbappé pose with their awards. Photograph: Benoît Tessier/Reuters
Luka Modric, Ada Hegerberg and Kylian Mbappé pose with their awards. Photograph: Benoît Tessier/Reuters

Men’s award – top five

1) Luka Modric (Croatia and Real Madrid)
2) Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal and Juventus)
3) Antoine Griezmann (France and Atlético Madrid)
4) Kylian Mbappé (France and PSG)
5) Lionel Messi (Argentina and Barcelona)

England’s Harry Kane was 10th, Wales’s Gareth Bale joint 17thWomen’s award – top five

1) Ada Hegerberg (Norway and Lyon)
2) Pernille Harder (Denmark and Wolfsburg)
3) Dzsenifer Maroszan (Germany and Lyon)
4) Marta (Brazil and Orlando Pride)
5) Sam Kerr (Australia and Chicago Red Stars)

England’s Lucy Bronze and Fran Kirby finished 6th and 14thKopa award for best young player

The inaugural award for the best under-21 player in the world was won by France and PSG forward Kylian Mbappé.The men’s award: how the rest finished

Kylian Mbappé Lionel Messi 6 Mohamed Salah 7 Raphaël Varane Eden Hazard Kevin de Bruyne 10 Harry Kane 11 N’Golo Kanté 12 Neymar 13 Luis Suárez 14 Thibaut Courtois 15 Paul Pogba 16 Sergio Agüero =17 Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale =19 Roberto Firmino, Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Ramos =22 Marcelo, Edinson Cavani, Sadio Mané =25 Alisson, Jan Oblak, Mario Mandzukic 28 Diego Godín =29 Isco, Hugo Lloris.