This Sporting Life

Big Six in big trouble after failed Super League gamble

What were they thinking? Were the so-called Big Six English football clubs so arrogant and smugly confident that they thought they could get away with anything? They certainly believed in the fantasy of a European Super League in which the continent’s top clubs were only to play against each other and from which they could never be relegated. Did the owners of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur really believe the inevitable protests could be simply swept aside, or worse, ignored?

Clearly they did, but equally clearly they did not anticipate the overwhelming level of protest their move would generate. Outrage was voiced not only from the other clubs in every English league, together with their supporters and current and former players, but also from pundits, commentators, celebrities and politicians on all sides. As Ted Hastings in Line of Duty might have put it, the widespread disbelief was felt by “Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey”. Everyone outside the top six was against it. The Prime Minister reckons he was against it, though rumours of Manchester United’s then executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, being at 10 Downing Street for a meeting just days before the breakaway league was announced have not been denied

Inside sources say the PM was not at the meeting, which they claim wasn’t about the proposed European Super League anyway. But Johnson allegedly met Woodward afterwards and no one has yet stepped forward to say what the meeting was about. Woodward has since resigned and, as so often with popular decisions, the Prime Minister has claimed credit for getting the big six to change their minds.

The six English clubs pulled out within 48 hours of announcing they were in, apparently ripping up binding contracts to the reported fury of Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez, said to be the Super League’s driving force. Italian clubs AC Milan and Inter Milan also swiftly withdrew, together with Spain’s Atlético Madrid, meaning just three giants of the original twelve – Italy’s Juventus and Spain’s Barcelona and Real Madrid – remain. The top clubs from France and Germany already wisely declined to be part of the competition, so with only three “top” teams still in, it looks unlikely the competition will get off the ground any time soon.

But return to the status quo has not ended the controversy for English clubs. Huge supporter group protests continue, including the pitch invasion at Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground on 2 May, which led to the postponement of their match with Liverpool. And despite grovelling apologies from the top brass at all six clubs there are ongoing demands for the owners of each club to sell up and ship out. Although the teams have agreed to pay fines of up to £78m each, which of course they can afford, the ramifications and consequences of their rash, greedy and power-based moves will rumble on. When, and if the dust finally settles, perhaps the six clubs will conclude that it is better, after all, to be a big fish in a big pool than a massive fish in a tiny pool.

Transgender athlete set to make Olympic history

Laurel Hubbard

It was only a matter of time, but history looks set to be made this year as New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is almost certain to be selected as the first transgender athlete to compete at an Olympic Games. Qualification rules for the delayed 2020 games were changed after several competitions were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with only one athlete per country now allowed in each category. This means that a number of higher-ranked rivals in the super-heavyweight class in which Hubbard competes will be missing from the Tokyo Olympics, which are due to start on 23 July. Hubbard, 43, has a current world ranking of sixteen, but will now have a genuine medal chance, as the absences rank her fourth out of the current fourteen qualifiers. And although she has not yet been officially selected for the New Zealand team, which does not have to be named until 5 July, the nation’s Olympic Committee (NZOC) said Hubbard was “very likely” to be named in the Tokyo 2020 squad.

Hubbard has been eligible to compete in the Olympics as a transgender athlete since 2015, when the International Olympic Committee issued new guidelines. Her participation in the Games, if and when it is confirmed, will cause huge controversy (see our article in the Survey section on page…), sharply dividing opinion between those who will see it as a significant step forward for trans athletes and others who insist she benefits from an unfair advantage. The changed 2015 IOC guidelines state that athletes who transition from male to female can compete in the women’s category without surgery to remove their testes provided their total testosterone is under ten nanomoles per litre for at least twelve months. However, some recent scientific papers have demonstrated that people who have undergone male puberty retain significant advantages in power and strength, even after taking medication to suppress their testosterone levels.

Hubbard, who will be the oldest weightlifter at the Games, lived as a male for 35 years and during that time did not compete in international weightlifting. But since transitioning in 2012 she has won a number of elite titles and claimed the silver medal at the 2017 world championships. Perhaps Tokyo 2020 will see her take the ultimate prize with Olympic gold.

Rigby’s Sports Shorts

Martial money

So you think football superstar Lionel Messi, or perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo, or even tennis legend Roger Federer, is the highest-earning sport star? Think again. According to the annual Forbes list, mixed martial arts (MMA) maestro Conor McGregor was the world’s highest paid athlete over the past twelve months, raking in just under £128m. Messi was next with £92.4m and Ronaldo made £85.3m, while poor old Federer had to make do with a paltry £64m.

Panned for his Panenka!

The Panenka, the football penalty takers surprise tactic of attempting to chip the ball over the goalkeeper rather than blasting it to one side or the other, looks sensational when it works but can be embarrassing when it fails. Manchester City striker Sergio Agüero tried one in the Premier League match against Chelsea, which with victory could have meant City claiming the title on the day, but he failed dismally. Chelsea keeper Édouard Mendy caught the ball with one hand, City lost and had to wait to claim the title. Agüero later went on Twitter to apologise to the club’s legions of fans.

Rough with the smooth

Australian cricket is poised for more damaging revelations resulting from the 2018 “Sandpapergate” scandal, when Aussie skipper, Steve Smith, vice-captain, David Warner and opener, Cameron Bancroft, were sent home from the series with South Africa and subsequently banned for their part in a plot to rough up the surface of the ball with sandpaper when their opponents were batting. Now Bancroft has suggested that more of his teammates knew about the plot and Cricket Australia looks set to investigate.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author and scriptwriter. His sport-themed fiction includes the novelisations of the “Goal!” movies and the four official London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics novels for children

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