Where is Australia’s Joey Barton?

For the uninitiated, Joey Barton captains and plays midfield for the Queens Park Rangers (QPR), a newly promoted side in the Premier League. He enjoys a certain amount of infamy in British sporting circles; having worked his way up through the ranks at Manchester City and been capped for England, he went a little off the rails and was jailed for assault at 25 in May 2008. In the same year he launched a vicious assault on teammate Ousmane Dabo during a training session, for which he received a suspended sentence. So far so typical, I guess we might say. Every other rugby league team these days seems to have one or two lads who sport shades of the Joseph Anthony Barton of 2007/2008.

Since then, Barton has not divorced himself completely from controversy, but he has turned his life around to a remarkable extent, becoming in the process one of the most interesting and polarising sportspeople in Britain. He is a prolific tweeter (@Joey7Barton), racking up 4000 tweets and boasting over 1,000,000 followers, covering all manner of sports, religion, the media, politics and touching often on his appreciation for George Orwell and The Smiths. He has become an avid reader, started writing a regular column for The Big Issue, and has recently offered some explosively challenging but common sense commentary on the John Terry racial abuse trial to be heard in July this year.

It is difficult to think of a single figure in Australian sport who is both willing and able to combine his or her efforts on the sporting field with a public intellectual life as well. Our sportspeople seem to be either not trained at all to be public professionals, or trained so ruthlessly to focus on the physical aspects of their work and their “media image” that they end up coming across as bereft of personality and without a non-sporting opinion to their name. Polymath truly is a dirty word in Australian public life.

Surely it is time for some of our sporting superstars to stand up for the nation and play a larger role in the public discourse that extends beyond their muscles and physical attributes. As a sporting nation, are we all really so “white bread” – so single-minded in our individual physical pursuits? Perhaps its time to change the widely accepted definition of what it means to be a successful sportsperson in the 21st century. I’d much prefer to hear what Australian’s next big swimming star thinks about the republic or gay marriage than who their next lucrative sponsorship deal is with.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo

Don’t cry for me, North Korea?

This morning’s football World Cup group match between Brazil and North Korea was widely predicted to be a goalfest, a one-sided affair. In the blue corner were the so-called samba kings, the celebrated team that the FIFA rankings suggest is still the best in the world. In the red corner, the hermit kingdom of North Korea, reviled in international diplomatic circles, and at 105th, the lowest ranked team to qualify for the World Cup finals. While we enjoy all games live, a large question-mark remains over whether or not the game was even planned to be telecast by Pyongyang; it apparently would not have been broadcast live or even in full, because the state broadcaster does not transmit during the early hours of the Korean morning (3:30AM) in which it was scheduled.

As it transpired the match was actually quite a competitive one. North Korea repelled the attacks of the ostensibly superior Brazilian team for over fifty minutes, showing far more application in defence and determination than the Australian team did in their group match against Germany on Monday morning. Despite conceding a couple of relatively soft goals in the second half, the Koreans even managed to ping back a goal in the dying stages, and did manage to create a decent handful of changes throughout the match.

Although Brazilian coach Dunga was noticeably quick to retreat from the side of the pitch at the final whistle, and there was, for the most part, a rather awkward distance kept between the two teams after the game, there was a clear sense of good will displayed by both teams on the pitch. It was a good, clean, fair game, with only a single yellow card issued by the referee throughout.

One can’t help wondering whether North Korea’s involvement in the World Cup finals will do more to open up its nation to the world than twenty years of diplomatic stone-throwing.

Patriotism and Sam Stosur

Australian women’s tennis is in need of a real “champion”, and has been in need of one for some time now. The last Australian woman to claim a major title was Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who won Wimbledon all the way back in 1980. I’ve been frightfully busy during the last week, but was heartened and surprised to hear of Samantha Stosur’s giant-killing efforts at the French Open. Anyone capable of dispatching Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic in the one tournament is undoubtedly a player with a lot of ability and a lot of mental toughness.

It’s been fascinating to watch the unerringly shallow Australian media latch on to Sam just as she reached the precipice of so-called “real” glory by making the French Open final. When it comes to sport, we love our winners, but we’re not so interested in inconsistent performers or those battling valiantly to reach the elite echelon, even if the lives of such people often make for better stories. Australian tennis for the last few years, of course, has been all about Lleyton Hewitt and Bernard Tomic. Women’s tennis has barely registered as a blip on the radar. Stosur has always been treated like something of a second-class citizen amongst our athletic elite, and it is only now that she has done some truly remarkable things in this latest tournament that she is being heralded as our “Super Sam”. Why is this?

There is a lesson in the tournament outcome, of course. Despite being the favourite to win the final by a huge margin, Stosur just couldn’t get it together in the final, losing in straight sets to plucky Italian Francesca Schiavone. I watched the first set and a half, and Stosur seemed quite nervy, missing numerous simple conversions she should have made, and playing some truly erratic shots. She was placed under considerable pressure by the gutsy way in which Schiavone took the game to her. Physically, the Italian was the underdog, but she still somehow managed to overpower Stosur. Let’s take a step back for a moment here. Francesca Schiavone was the first Italian woman in history to reach a Grand Slam final, and yesterday, became the first Italian woman ever to win one. That’s some achievement. Stosur’s performance has been remarkable over the last week, and she deserves our plaudits, but Schiavone’s performance was one better – not that you would read about it in the Australian media.

We love our sport in Australia, but for the vast majority of the time it sure does seem as though you have to be male, Australian and a winner in order to be celebrated, or even, for that matter, noticed. If you happen for some reason to fall down on one of those criteria, you’re taking up valuable room in the sports pages that could be filled by footy.

Ashes 2009: the ecstasy and the truly marvellous irony

The Ashes has certainly burrowed its way under my skin this year, much more than it did either four years ago during the dark days of 2005, or the one-way traffic of 2007 on home soil. There are probably many reasons why this is, but the most obvious one is that the Australian cricket team has come back to the field in just the last couple of seasons. The retirement of practically half a team full of champion players during the last few years has left the rest of the team with a considerable learning curve to deal with, just to stay in the game. One gets the sense that we are teetering on the edge of a new era for the Australian test cricket team, but at the moment, with the Ashes still in the balance, it is tantalisingly unclear as to what the trajectory of this era is going to be. Australia only needs a draw in the fifth test at The Oval (starting this evening Australia time) to salvage The Ashes, of course, but to retain their prized number one ranking, they need to win the match. There has scarcely been a game in recent test cricket history that has mattered more to Australia than this.

This year’s Ashes has also reminded us of something very valuable; instant gratification is, contrary to the spirit of the times, not always the best form of gratification. Test matches are decidedly out of step with the pace of modern life and modern trends in sport. They do you slowly. They can, occasionally, be as proverbially brisk as watching the grass grow in your backyard. At the end of five long days, neither the teams nor the average spectator may get the sense of finality that comes from a clear result. The best team may not win. Both teams may not be playing well. The weather may ruin the match. Despite all this, even as the billions of dollars being plowed into 20:20 cricket threaten to kill off this purest form of the game and render one-day internationals redundant, Ashes 2009 has delivered to viewers an enthralling spectacle.

It has been heartening to discover that I am not alone in thinking all of this. There have even been two corroborating mainstream newspaper columns in recent days – from writers not normally associated closely with sports journalism. There something deliciously ironic about this opening from Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian:

Two summers ago I wrote here of my aversion to the BlackBerry as holiday companion. No mobile device would accompany me on my vacation, I declared: “The only blackberries I hope to see on my holiday are the kind you eat.” Now, 24 months later, I have a confession to make. I have broken my own rule. I have just returned from a fortnight in France with my wife, children – and one of the dreaded handheld devices.

But don’t judge me too harshly. I didn’t crack under the pressure of work. I wasn’t frantically thumbing out emails when I should have been splashing in the sea. In fact, I didn’t so much as glance at my email. The BlackBerry had a single purpose: allowing me, via its internet browser, to keep up to date with the cricket.

That’s right – Freedland bought a BlackBerry – one of the technological buzzword products of the noughties – to keep up with the progress of the one of the oldest and most anachronistic games still attracting media attention. I wonder what W.G. Grace would have thought of all this.