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Internacional

Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, track-fighting man <em>Picture: Chell Hill</em>

Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, track-fighting man Picture: Chell Hill

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Usain Bolt aside, athletics has been up against it in recent times, drugs putting a question mark against everyone. So those in charge of the sport have tried all kinds of marketing ploys to lift the popularity, from Golden to Diamond leagues, strange-coloured vests, and world record attempts at every opportunity.

But it appears they might have cracked it with a completely new event – the middleweight street-fighter 3,000m steeplechase. I know there have been wee neds and polis throughout Scotland participating in this event for years, but never on a world stage.

Watch this and tell me who wouldn’t want this in the 2012 London Olympics or Glasgow 2014?

Channel 5 has live boxing, the British and Commonwealth heavyweight title fight between holder Dereck Chisora and Tyson Fury.

Fury took the win on points after 12 rounds, which I had scored 117–112 in his favour. There were some inquisitive looks at me when the MC read out the judges’ scorecards, the first two giving Fury the fight by the same margin. There are those amongst my family and friends who forget what I used to do for a living.

All in all, it was more thud and blunder than blood and thunder, but a good enough scrap nevertheless. I’d score the contest 7/10, above average, because over the years I’ve paid more to watch worse…

Sunday
The German Grand Prix lost out to a BBQ. I admit, I missed a great race (although I watched the highlights later).

Star performance of the day comes from Mark Cavendish, who won the final stage of the Tour de France in Paris, becoming Britain’s first winner of the green jersey for the race’s best sprinter.

Cavendish deserves the plaudits for his achievement, although what he won was a series of races within one big race. Overall, he finished 130th, ninety-nine places behind the top Brit, Geraint Thomas.

Still, Cavendish rewrote the history books in capturing that green jersey, and had plenty more written about him as a result.

But imagine if he had taken such a title and finished at the head of the field. What media frenzy would have followed that?

Well, back in 1984, that’s what Scotland’s Robert Millar did, winning the King of the Mountains red polka-dot jersey outright and finishing an amazing fourth overall.

But Millar’s incredible performance merited probably a tenth of the exposure in this country that Cavendish’s did.

That’s how much sport has grown in the last quarter of a century. Or do I mean the hype around it?

Monday
While he might never have enjoyed the hero-worship of Jimmy White or Ronnie O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry was always a popular guy.

People presented him with awards aplenty, adoring fans even commissioning special trophies to mark his achievements, with my good friend Neil White’s Waterford Crystal piece commemorating Hendry’s 100 Crucible centuries a particularly striking gift.

Whenever the seven-times world champion was signing autographs, there would be a lengthy queue, with all sorts wanting him to pen their books, photographs, programmes, tickets and the likes – and, in the case of a few daring young ladies, certain parts of their anatomy.

Stephen joked a few months that he was now the property of the granny brigade. But just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse when it came to admirers…

I have to say, all credit to Stephen for posing as an Apache warrior…

Tuesday
While Rangers entertain Malmö (although they struggled to do the same with the home support) in their Champions League qualifier at Ibrox, holders Barcelona are participating in the Audi Cup at the Allianz Arena along with Bayern Munich (who they would eventually defeat in the final), AC Milan and Internacional from Brazil.

Audi spend a shed-load of dosh year-on-year backing their own record-breaking team in endurance car races, especially at Le Mans.

But while there are those out there trying to tell butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers just how wonderful motorsport sponsorship is for brand awareness, here is one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world sinking even more cash (they are official car suppliers to Manchester United) in football.

What does that tell you about the power of the glorious game?

Back to Ibrox, and in the inner bowels of the great stadium ahead of the game, I’m interviewing the legend that is the “Greatest Ever Ranger”, John Greig. “Greigy” is helping me with a few chapters for a book idea I’m working on and complains bitterly that I’ve asked him to recall some details from nearly 50 years ago.

He then rhymes off team-mates, goalscorers, who passed to who and other recollections as if it were yesterday.

What does that tell you about the power of the glorious game?

Wednesday
One year to go to London 2012. 365 days now, or is it 366? It’s a year, anyway. Unfortunately my preparations have been curtailed somewhat by injury (a long-term Achilles problem has flared up again), and the fact that I am still trying to decide what event I want to compete in. This decision-making process will be all the easier once I work out what sport I am going to be good at.

I’m still thinking football, as the token Scot – or judo, as you would get to keep a nice jacket if nothing else.

It might be my imagination, but champion diver Tom Daley has started appearing even more regularly on my TV, fronting the Nestlé “Get Set, Go Free” campaign.

Now as a diver, young Tom is agile, inventive and expressive – all of the things he is not in this advert.

I noted that while he tried out golf and hockey, the kept him well away from horses. Copyright there probably belongs to Zara Phillips.

Of course, there has only ever been one athlete capable of world-class diving and being able to act with it. Watch and learn, Tom, from a master at work.

Thursday
El-Hadji Diouf has always had the ability to play at the very highest level. He has also had the ability throughout his career to start a fight in an empty hoose.

This week Diouf fell out of love with the Senegal Football Federation (FSF) which banned him for five years after comments he had made on Radio France Internationale, in which he claimed that “the whole system of African football is corrupt”. I couldn’t possibly comment.

But Diouf is naturally upset by the outcome and promised he would “go to war” with the FSF. Well, he wouldn’t be himself if he wasn’t warring with someone. Ask Scott Brown, the players of QPR, and at least one Celtic fan. The list is endless.

This latest spat, coupled with Diouf’s non-appearance for Blackburn’s return for pre-season training, has put his future at Ewood Park in doubt, with Rovers boss Steve Kean indicating that perhaps the time was right for the player to leave the club.

And here was me thinking that Kean had allowed Diouf to play at the tail-end of last season with Rangers, just so he could welcome him back with open arms.

However, there might have been some method in El-Hadji’s madness, missing the making of this.

Maybe Tom Daley isn’t that bad after all…

Friday
Northern Ireland’s second-best golfer Rory McIlroy doesn’t like criticism levelled at him by American broadcaster Jay Townsend on Twitter.

After seeing the US Open champion double-bogey the last hole at Killarney, Townsend tweeted: “It was some of the worst course management I’ve ever seen beyond under-10 boys’ golf competition.”

McIlroy countered: “Jay Townsend shut up… you’re a commentator and a failed golfer, your opinion means nothing.”

Townsend responded with: “I stand by my comments.”

The Ulsterman retaliated with “Well, I stand by my caddie,” and then revealed: “I have now blocked him on Twitter so I won’t be reading anything more.”

Different sport, different people, different times and different technology.

But you could never see someone like Graeme Souness in his pomp, or Sir Alex Ferguson, resolving their differences with someone by telling them they’d blocked them on Twitter…

Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments, @sweirz

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TP Mazembe LogoAndrew Macdonell in South Africa

The FIFA Club World Cup is a curious competition. It decides the best football club in the world and yet, despite the best efforts of Sepp Blatter, only the most dedicated fans may be aware that it has taken place.

The 2010 Competition was hosted recently in Abu Dhabi and pitted the various continental champions against one another in a knockout tournament. The final saw the current European Champions, Inter Milan, defeat their African counterparts, TP Mazembe, 3-0. This result confirmed Inter Milan as the best club side on the planet but, in the topsy turvy world of football management, within a week their manager, Rafa Benitez, was on the dole.

Some may be tempted to feel sorry for poor Rafa, who has now managed to lose two high profile jobs in six months. However I am sure that the £2.5 million pay-off from Inter Milan, not to mention a similar payout from Liverpool, will soften the blow.

So winners can quickly become losers – but what of the losers?

Africa’s best club side, TP Mazembe, have had a phenomenal couple of years and, despite losing out in Abu Dhabi, are the ones feeling on top of the world. Their story is a fairy tale of progress and achievement from humble beginnings.

TP Mazembe, or Tout Puissant Mazembe Englebert, to give them their full name, hail from the provincial town of Lubumbashi, in the mineral-rich province of Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The club was founded in 1939 by Benedictine Monks of the Holy Institute Boniface of Élizabethville (as Lubumbashi was known in colonial times).

Mazembe’s club badge features a crocodile, yet strangely their nickname is actually the “Les Corbeaux” (the Ravens). Their black and white kit gives them a striking resemblance to St Mirren or Newcastle United yet, unlike either of these two, they have rich history of trophies down the years. In fact, the “tout puissant” part of their name, which means “all powerful”, was added after they went undefeated in winning their first league title in 1966. However in the Congo, success on its own is not sufficient – it is equally important to look good. The Mazembe boys therefore sport some of the best haircuts ever seen on a football pitch and their extravagant goal celebrations take some beating.

The recent upturn in the club’s fortunes has coincided with the investment and support of the club president, the 38-year-old Moïse Katumbi Chapwe. Monsieur Chapwe also happens to be the Governor of Katanga Province, an extremely wealthy businessman and (after President Joseph Kabila) probably the most influential young Congolese politician around.

TP Mazembe won the CAF African Champions League in 2009 and repeated the feat in 2010. The African Championship is one of the most challenging competitions to win anywhere in the world.

Home advantage probably plays a more decisive role in Africa than it does anywhere else in the world. To win here, it is necessary to return from away games with at least a few results in the face of hostile crowds, variable playing conditions, often dubious hospitality and intimidated referees. This is a tall order and the fact that Mazembe have achieved it back to back is a stunning achievement. However in the two-leg final of the 2010 Champions League, TP Mazembe had no need to rely on away form, having already demolished the Tunisian Champions, Esperance, 5-0 at home in Lubumbashi. A 1-1 draw in the return leg of the final was enough to clinch the title and a spot in Abu Dhabi.

Having qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup, TP Mazembe then proceeded to dispose of CF Pachuca of Mexico 1–0 in the quarter finals, before defeating Internacional of Brazil 2–0 in the semi finals.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has produced many talented footballers over the years; but their teams have often amounted to less than the sum of their parts. Not since 1974, when Zaïre (as the DRC used to be known) qualified as the first team from sub-saharan Africa to appear at a World Cup (and encountered Scotland during their brief campaign) has a Congolese football team made so many headlines outside of Africa.

2010 has certainly been a notable year for African football with the successful hosting of a World Cup on the continent for the first time. However in purely football terms, TP Mazembe’s exploits have, for me, been the highlight of the year.

So it will be a good Christmas for the footballers of TP Mazembe. On the other hand, Mr Benitez may have managed the Club World Champions, but he has rather more time on his hands this Christmas than he had bargained for.

Football, as someone once said, can be a “funny old game”.