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Rangers Team stayed at the Carnoustie Hotel
before their match against Forfar Athletic

I think I know what BBC Radio Scotland’s Liam McLeod meant when he said during his ‘Sportsound’ commentary something along the lines that all that was left for Motherwell to do in the closing minutes against Celtic was ‘to try and soil Fraser Forster’s clean sheet.’

Robbie Shepherd 'Take the Floor' makes the journey home easier

Robbie Shepherd
‘Take the Floor’ makes the journey home easier
(Pic: Wikipedia)

As I say, I think I know what he was trying to say!

Moving on, another of BBC Scotland’s products grabbed my attention this Sunday evening with an hour of telly time dedicated to Robbie Shepherd and a tribute to him in the shape of ‘I’ll Be Looking for You.’

And where does the host of Radio Scotland’s ‘Take The Floor’ fit into my sporting day? Actually, it’s more where he dovetails into my sporting life.

Over the years, believe it or not, Robbie has kept me company on many a miserable winter journey hame from various football venues across the land, accompanied by some of the most colourful music this nation has produced with equally colourful titles such as Mrs Grieve of Howdan, Gibby Lang’s Jig, A Trip to Murcia, Tug Argan Gap and Ma’ Granny Deep Fried The Tattie Scones.

Okay, the last one was made up, as I was regularly when the signal on medium flavour in the middle of nowhere would crackle then pick up accordions and fiddles playing to a three-four beat.
Made many a trek home most enjoyable. And for that I will never have a bad word said of Robbie Shepherd.

Players rejected a pay cut

Players rejected a pay cut

Much is made of Rangers’ decision to book in to the four-star Carnoustie Hotel ahead of their league contest against Forfar Athletic. The news angle to this was of course that it came just a few days after the Rangers players had knocked back a 15% pay cut to alleviate the club’s financial strains.

Manager Ally McCoist could always point to the fact that it was part of his the preparations ahead of his team gathering another three points on the way to back-to-back championships and promotions.
He could also say, that such rest bite was nothing new. I can remember then assistant manager Walter Smith playing dorm warden at the Grosvenor back in the days of Souness, when McCoist himself was a player.

Me, I didn’t see anything wrong with a few hours in Carnoustie, just as I never did when previous Rangers squads checked in to the Moat House or Huntingtowers in Perth, or various locations in Aberdeen. After all, it was probably the one time you knew where they would be and you could have a chat with them, uninterrupted. It sounds glamorous, but being cooped up in a hotel is for most players as boring as hell and they’d do anything to break the monotony – even speak to journalists!

What's the future for the games?

What’s the future for the games?

And the Commonwealth Games Federation voices concerns about a lack of interest from member countries in hosting future Games. So far, no member country has expressed serious interest in hosting the 2022 event ahead of a March deadline.

But didn’t we know already that this was how the Commonwealth Games was going?

I think some of us realised it when Glasgow ‘won’ the bid to host the year’s games back in November 2007, seeing off the rival bids from Abuja, Nigeria and, er, Abuja, Nigeria. Halifax, Nova Scotia,
had grabbed their hat out of the ring when they took fright at the projected operating costs reached $1.7bn.

Good job Scotland’s show will come in on, or under budget … won’t it?

Won on penalties

Won on penalties

The Manchester United versus Sunderland League Cup semi-final is eventually decided by a penalty shoot-out; ten kicks taken, only three converted as United tumbled out to add to the woes of David Moyes. Naturally, as it a) involved Manchester United, b) was played in England and c) took place in a World Cup year, then this really had to be the worst penalty kick competition of all time.

Sorry, but it didn’t even come close to the example I (and Hamilton Academical doyen of all things Academical, Scott Struthers) quoted, namely Accies shoot out win over Meadowbank Thistle in the 1992 B&Q Cup semi-final.

That night at Douglas Park, of the 14 kicks taken, ten were saved and one missed – leaving the home side 2-1 winners. I am glad Scott and me could put United’s loss and that penalty kick disaster into some context – a whole day and a bit before some media outlets picked up on it. Oh, the power of social media …

Picture of elegance Norway's curling team

Picture of elegance
Norway’s curling team

In the run up to the Independence Referendum much has been made of how Scotland should be copying the financial and social model of other nations, one of them being Norway. Another part of the Scottish Governments white paper on Independence set out the case for Scotland competing as a separate nation at the likes of the Olympic Games.

Mix those two topics together and the SNP just might have lost a few votes, especially amongst the curling fraternity if Scotland standing alone, financially and sportingly means this (see pic left!)

And the Norwegians have so much going for them? Aye, right …

And well done to Coventry City boss and my old mate Steven Pressley for extending the hand of friendship to Arsene Wenger ahead of the FA Cup tie with Arsenal. ‘Elvis’ has a special bottle of single malt for the Frenchman, which he hopes Arsene will consume – before the game. Good ploy. But I fancy Steven should have bought a case and made friends with the entire Arsenal starting XI!

The house sparrow – making a recovery

The long term decline in the population of the humble house sparrow appears to have been halted. It was one of the great achievements of 2013, thanks to all those suburban gardeners. But the recovery of this little Biblical bird is slow and uncertain, just like the recovery in our economy.

George Osborne 'Not done yet'

George Osborne
‘Not done yet’

The Chancellor says he is “not yet done” with his austerity programme and the national debt will increase before it declines. But he reckons we’ve seen 1.4 per cent growth in the economy this year, the first real sign of recovery since the bankers’ crash in 2007/8. Unemployment is coming down but is still above 7 per cent (around 20 per cent for young people).

Thank goodness we have seen a return in consumer spending, for that is, above all, what is going to fire up the economy. Unfortunately in 2013 we could not shake off the 19th century belief that we can manufacture and export our way out of recession. It’s as if the other 75 per cent of the economy didn’t exist !

The heather set on fire

The heather set on fire

Another believe we have been reluctant to let go of is that climate change does not matter much. We were happy to see the government postponing petrol tax rises and taking action against energy price increases. And it didn’t occur to us what might be causing the long dry spring and summer, the strong winds and flooding in the autumn, the bush fires in Australia (not to mention the Scottish Highlands), the tornado in Oklahoma and, in the Philippines, the most powerful storm the world has ever seen.

And when disasters have been more directly man-made, we’ve convinced ourselves we can do nothing about them. As in the clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh in April which killed a thousand workers, or the war in Syria which has left 100,000 dead and 2 million refugees. Where we have intervened, as in Afghanistan, we have done so half-heartedly and we are now winding down our operations there.

The White Paper

The White Paper

Here at home, this has been the year of pre-referendum nerves. The Yes camp has published its case for independence in a 650 page “white paper” promising everything from a written constitution to free child-care. The No camp couldn’t agree on a similar manifesto and have confined themselves to sniping at the SNP’s figures. The opinion polls are still showing a 60/30 split between those who want Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom and those who want independence. The remaining 10 per cent have yet to make up their minds.

Whatever happens on September 18th 2014, it will be clear that a lot of Scots want more say over the way their country is run. The Independence march and rally in September this year saw 10,000 flag-waving people – and a couple of pandas – parading through the streets of Edinburgh in a scene worthy of Sir Walter Scott. Containing this patriotic fervour will be one of the post-referendum challenges.

Another bad year for the reputation of bankers

Another bad year for the reputation of bankers

The top bankers have continued to disgrace themselves. The latest figures from the European Banking Authority show that in 2012 nearly 3,000 bankers in Britain collected bonuses worth four times their annual salaries and their average pay went up 35 per cent. These are the chaps who caused the recession in the first place and were responsible for a string of offences, including miss-selling insurance and investment “products”, breaking international sanctions and fixing interest rates. And the Scottish banks, RBS and the Bank of Scotland, have been among the worst offenders.

State Funeral

State Funeral

Even Mrs Thatcher has been turning in her grave. We gave the grand old lady a grand old send-off in a state funeral in April. The former Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie died in August after a valiant struggle against cancer. The Labour party lost one of its loved ones, with the death of the Fife MSP Helen Eadie, again from cancer. The SNP also lost one of its MSPs but for quite different reasons. Bill Walker from Dunfermline was sent to jail on 22 charges of assault against three former wives.

The Catholic Church had another traumatic year, with further allegations of child abuse – this time at its former boarding school in Fort Augustus. Cardinal Keith O’Brien was forced to resign in February after admitting inappropriate sexual relations with young trainee priests. The Church only began to restore some respectability when it brought in a reforming new Pope from South America.

Angela Merkel Stormed back as German Chancellor

Angela Merkel
Stormed back as German Chancellor

In the world at large, we’ve seen President Obama survive the “fiscal cliff” but only just. Angela Merkel stormed back for a third term as Chancellor of Germany. South Africa has said a fond farewell to Nelson Mandela. And the Chinese have landed a spacecraft on the Moon.

Where politicians have failed, wars have continued. There are currently a dozen going on, including, of course Syria and Afghanistan but we’ve seen new outbreaks in Nigeria, Mali and the Central African Republic. And there have been dreadful acts of terrorism in Nairobi, Boston and in the streets of London where soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death by two Islamic extremists. There have been violent riots too in Cairo, Kiev and, shame of it, in Belfast where over 50 police officers were injured in August.

Scotland has had its fair share of disasters this year. It began with four climbers killed in an avalanche in Glencoe in January. Another four people died in a North Sea helicopter crash off Shetland in August. And at the end of November, a police helicopter fell from the sky onto the Clutha bar in Glasgow killing 10 people.

Andy Murray

Andy Murray

But it hasn’t all been bad news. We have gloried in our sporting stars. Fresh from his gold medal winning achievement at the London Olympics last year, Andy Murray also became the first Briton to win Wimbledon for over 70 years. Hardly surprising that he was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

In football we’ve been celebrating Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career at Aberdeen and Manchester United. In science we have a new Nobel Prize winner in Professor Peter Higgs. And in music, the Aberdeenshire lass Emeli Sande stormed the Brit Awards and 16 year old Nicholas McDonald from Glasgow very nearly won the X-Factor.

The Bible story of the sparrow, of course, illustrates the point that even the rise and fall of the most ordinary and humble creature matters in the whole scheme of things. Sparrow numbers may be rising, but others are falling, like the corncrake, the skylark, the curlew and the lapwing. Every one matters. The events of the year 2013 are not confined to the news headlines. They are only the touchstones by which we can navigate though our own personal history and perhaps help us flock together.

Planning for every eventuality?

The last time Scotland hosted the Commonwealth Games, in 1986, it all went horribly wrong. Half the Commonwealth boycotted the games and the event made a huge loss. Could the same happen in 2014? Are the organisers prepared for such a political threat?

Meadowbank Stadium where the last Scottish Commonwealth Games were held

Meadowbank Stadium where the last Scottish Commonwealth Games were held

I don’t want to be a doom-monger, as the sale of tickets gets under way, but “The Games” have always been open to political exploitation. Peace campaigners in ancient Greece used the Olympics to call a truce in a series of endless wars. Roman emperors used them to distract the people from questioning their rule. The Commonwealth Games themselves were founded in 1930 to bind the crumbling British Empire together. Alex Salmond is using them to bolster the cause of independence.

But worse than the treat of propaganda, is the threat of boycott. In the last few weeks we have heard calls for the winter Olympics in Russia to be boycotted over the issue of gay rights. The London Olympics last year were unusual in not suffering any boycotts. The Olympics have a history of stay-aways, over issues as varied as Soviet invasions to apartheid.

In 1976, 26 African countries boycotted the Montreal Olympics in protest at New Zealand’s sporting links with South Africa. Nigeria followed this up with a boycott of the Commonwealth Games in 1978 in Edmonton, Alberta. And in 1986, 32 African and Caribbean countries stayed away from the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, again over the issue of apartheid.

Mrs Thatcher was refusing to condemn sporting links with South Africa and trying to limit international sanctions against the white regime. In true Thatcherite style, she stuck to her belief that engagement was the best way of ending apartheid, despite the disastrous effect her policy was having on the Edinburgh Games. She wrote in her memoirs of visiting Edinburgh on that occasion:

“We went to see the competitors – those at least whose countries had not boycotted the event – in the games village, to be met by a few catcalls and some sour criticism. I did not disagree with Denis when he remarked that this was one of the most poisonous visits we had ever made.”

The event descended even further into farce when Robert Maxwell volunteered to save the games from financial ruin, and then only provided an eighth of the money he’d promised.

Glasgow 2014 LogoLet us pray that the same does not happen to the Glasgow Games. But it is not hard to see that it could happen again. Anything can upset the international community and lead to a boycott – something silly that Britain or Scotland does, or something silly that one of the participating countries does and then – like New Zealand in 1976 – insists on appearing in Glasgow. After all, it was only a kiss in Moscow last week that has threatened the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

So, how could the games organisers in Glasgow respond to such a threat of boycott? I hope it’s as much a part of the planning process as the travel arrangements, the security, the construction programme, the ticketing, the sponsorship etc. Will the games go ahead despite any boycott? How big a boycott could the games withstand? Could athletes from non-Commonwealth countries be invited to fill the empty spaces in the games village? Could the games be postponed for a year?

Perhaps there is nothing the organisers can do but hope that no boycott emerges. And if it does, it could be counted an “act of God” for which no plans can be made. But the risk is huge – £523m in money terms, not to mention the risk of disappointment for the 262 potential medal winners and all those of us hoping to buy tickets. So in the next 12 months we need to keep politics separate from sport, have contingency plans in case of a small boycott and hope for the best.

Malaria is one of the World’s killer diseases. Currently, around 10% of people with the severest forms of malaria – an estimated one million, most of whom are young children – die from the disease, 40% of them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. However, researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences have made a discovery which may help to prevent the spread of the disease. They’ve uncovered a key protein that is common to different types of malaria parasite and found antibodies that target the protein. These are proving to be very effective in laboratory tests at blocking the ‘mechanisms’ that causes the disease. It offers real hope that they’ve made a crucial scientific discovery in the global fight against the severest forms of malaria.

Once injected into the bloodstream by the mosquito, malaria parasites alter the protein molecules on their surfaces to evade detection by the human immune system. Normally, these proteins are poor targets for treatments or vaccines, because, until now, they have been highly variable between the different malaria parasite strains. But the protein, pinpointed by researchers, binds to red blood cells through its ‘sticky’ structure and forms dangerous clusters – known as rosettes – that can block blood vessels in the brain, leading to cerebral malaria – the most lethal form of the disease. The researchers found that the surface proteins of rosette-forming parasites share similarities that may allow them to act as a target for new treatments to block progress of the disease.

Professor Alex Rowe Edinburgh University

Professor Alex Rowe
Edinburgh University

Professor Alexandra Rowe, from the University’s School of Biological Sciences, who led the research project, explained that they were aware “that the blood cell rosettes were apparent in many cases of life-threatening malaria, so we looked at rosette-forming parasites and found a common factor that could be targeted with antibodies. With this research yielding positive results, investigations into the viability of new treatments and vaccines to eradicate the formation of rosettes and prevent instances of life threatening malaria are now underway.”

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh collaborated with fellow scientists and researchers from Cameroon, Mali, Kenya and The Gambia to test their antibodies against parasites collected from patients.

Dr Wendy Nicholson Edinburgh Research and Innovation

Dr Wendy Nicholson
Edinburgh Research and Innovation

The University’s commercialisation arm, Edinburgh Research and Innovation, is now seeking partners in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to collaborate with to help apply these findings to bring forward the next generation malaria drug or vaccine development. This could lead to the prevention of tens of thousands of infant deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. Dr Wendy Nicholson, its Head of Business Development addwed that the quest was now “to stimulate pharmaceutical companies into the funding of early stage vaccine and drug development programmes that offer genuine hope in halting the alarming death rate prevalence of this disease. This research carried out at the University of Edinburgh offers an innovative and pioneering breakthrough and casts new light on seeking a fresh scientific approach to tacking life-threatening malaria.”

According to the latest estimates by the World Health Organisation (WHO), most deaths occur among children living in Africa where a child dies every minute from malaria. These statistics show that an estimated 80% of malaria deaths occur in just 14 African countries and about 80% of all malaria cases occur in 17 countries overall.

Map of Africa, 1890 <em>Picture: Wilfraco</em>

Map of Africa, 1890 Picture: Wilfraco

By John Knox

The wildfire of popular uprising that has swept across North Africa may be putting the heat on the despots that have been ruling – and ruining – the rest of the continent for the last 30 years. A Charter on Democracy, drawn up by the African Union, has finally come into effect this month.

The 15th signature needed for the charter to become official policy has just been added by my old friend, Cameroon. I spent two years there as a volunteer teacher back in the 1970s when the founding father, Ahmadou Ahidjo, was master of all he surveyed. He ruled in the usual “Big Man” African style until he was ousted, in 1982, by the present lord protector, Paul Biya.

Biya’s 30 years in power have been marked by the building of palaces, the accumulation of a $75m personal fortune (according to the New York Times), the occasional suspicious election, government corruption, the arrest of opposition politicians and troublesome journalists, outbreaks of sporadic violence and continued poverty and underdevelopment.

Meanwhile, Biya himself – known as the Sphinx for his silent method of government – has spent much of his time abroad. He is in the habit of taking three-month-long holidays every year in Switzerland and France, the former colonial power to which he is still very much attached.

This is a tragic scenario – repeated across Africa – in which the natural resources of the country and the hard work of the ordinary people never lead to prosperity, or even progress towards prosperity. The International Monetary Fund rates Cameroon as the 40th-poorest country in the world, despite its resources of oil, timber, diamonds, cotton, coffee, tea, palm-oil and bananas. One third of its 20 million inhabitants live below the official poverty line.

A World Bank report last month found that Cameroon was being held back by “an unfavourable investment climate”. In particular, it mentions poor and inappropriate infrastructure – only 10 per cent of the roads are paved – and a faulty education system. Over 90 per cent of the population still work in the informal sector, largely subsidence farming, and underemployment is estimated at 70 per cent.

On the human rights front, Amnesty International’s latest report on Cameroon is not exactly complimentary. It talks of detention without trial, restrictions on the press, an electoral commission appointed by the president himself, prisoners languishing on death row, discrimination against homosexuals.

Indeed Amnesty International’s report on the whole of Africa for the year 2011 makes worrying reading. “Elections in various countries,” it says, “were marred by violence and an increase in human rights violations. In nearly all cases, the human rights violations were committed with total impunity.”

Here in Scotland we have watched our twin country in Africa, Malawi, slide further towards dictatorship and poverty under Bingu wa Mutharika. Official British aid (£90 million a year) has been suspended, pending a review on how it is spent. The Scottish government’s aid programme (£3m) goes bravely on, but only because the funds go direct to independent projects and not via the Malawi government.

Malawi has not yet signed the new Charter on Democracy – indeed, only 15 of the 54 members of the African Union have done so. The rest, presumably, fear the bar is being set too high with its declaration that “The Charter is premised on universal values of democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law, supremacy of the constitution and constitutional order in the political arrangement of states.”

It is a puzzle for us westerners to understand why Africa remains the dark continent while the rest of the world is waking up to the brighter prospects of peace, economic prosperity, the rule of law, decent minimum standards for all citizens in education, health, employment etc. Why this attachment to despots, tribal violence, cronyism, corruption and poverty?

These were, of course, western values until fairly recently, but why has Africa not joined us in moving on from them? Can we blame colonialism? Or extreme forms of Christianity or Islam? Or is it the African way to wait for consensus before everyone moves on together?

Whatever the reason, it has allowed evil tyrants to ruin their countries and steal their people’s wealth: Idi Amin in Uganda, Arap Moi in Kenya, Charles Taylor in Liberia, Sékou Touré in Guinea, Sani Abacha in Nigeria, Mobutu and Kabila in the Congo, Hasting Banda in Malawi, Jean-Bédel Bokasssa (whom I actually met) in the Central African Republic – and, of course, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

But perhaps African tyrants have seen the writing on the wall and, like King Belshazzar in ancient Babylon, they fear it is going to interrupt their feast. The uprisings which swept away Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya might spread south across the desert. So the Big Men are rededicating themselves to democracy in the new charter.

It is a strange irony that one of the main sponsors of the African Union is the People’s Republic of China, where democracy is only practised by a small sect, known as the central committee of the Communist Party. China built the African Union’s grandiose headquarters, opened in Addis Ababa last month. So it may be a rather peculiar form of democracy which emerges, if anything at all emerges from the new charter.

But there are a few signs of hope. Recent elections in Zambia and Nigeria have passed off relatively peacefully and with little corruption. The education systems, while crankingly slow, may eventually produce an educated class – as in North Africa – who will rise up to demand jobs, freedom, fairness and prosperity. The submission to tyrants – for fear of something worse – may soon be shown to be unnecessary. And the idea that “all men are created equal”, so slow to mature in Europe, may eventually take root in Africa.

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Sportacus – or Francesco Totti? <em>Picture: Daniel C Griliopoulos</em>

Sportacus – or Francesco Totti? Picture: Daniel C Griliopoulos

By Stewart Weir

And the Six Nations draws to a close with the usual amount of cheers and tears. Scotland beat Italy to avoid the wooden spoon – or, given the close relationship between the two nations, maybe it should have been the ice cream scoop.

But the big event saw England fall at the final hurdle to the Irish, so missing out on a Grand Slam. I mean, they only had to turn up to win, such was the 1990-like pre-match hype. That result meant that Wales had a chance of taking the championship, if they beat France by 28 points.

Who the hell started heaping such expectation on Wales in advance of the match in Paris?

Regardless, it was ill-founded, with the French running out easy winners – so handing, if you have been following things, the title to England. They received the series trophy, not in front of 70,000 spectators at the Aviva Stadium, but witnessed by just a few cameras and photographers in a Dublin Hotel.

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An anti-climax, or what? England had few complaints, despite their rally after the break, soundly beaten 24–8 by an Irish side which had led 17–3 at half-time.

“We won the first half, but England won the second half,” said Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll.

Wait a minute. 17–3 at the turnaround, 24–8 at no-side. Surely Ireland won the second half 7–5?

Poor arithmetic, Brian. Or do you have ambitions to be a future Irish finance minister?

Rangers beat Celtic 2–1 to take the Scottish League Cup. But that’s not the football highlight of the weekend.

Fiorentina and Roma playing out a 2–2 draw is hardly a scoreline to set pulses racing. But in scoring two goals for Roma, Francesco Totti (who has more than a passing resemblance to Sportacus from Lazy Town, minus the moustache) reached the landmark tally of 200 goals in Serie A.

To put that in to context, Serie A is more than a century old. But Totti is only the sixth player to reach that elusive mark. Giuseppe Meazza and Silvio Piola from the 1930s, and Gunnar Nordahl and José Altafini from the 50s and 60s, had their double-hundred before Roberto Baggio (the unthinking man’s Stevie Fulton) arrived, some 33 years after Altafini.

A decade on, and Totti has emulated their feat. But at the age of 34, he might not add too many more to his collection and certainly doesn’t have a hope of catching Piola’s all-time high of 274.

Of those still playing in Italy’s top flight, only Alessandro Del Piero is close to becoming the seventh member of this exclusive club.

Indeed, it’s not so much a case of marvelling at who has netted 200 goals in Serie A, as recognising the famous names who didn’t even come close: Gabriel Batistuta on 184, Luigi Riva and Roberto Mancini each with 156, while on 142 is Christian Vieri, who does not make tellies for Panasonic…

But returning to the League Cup, do you realise petrol was only 88p a litre when Celtic last won a trophy? Yes, that long…

It would have been easy to miss it. But the draw for the Betfred World Snooker Championship took place on Monday, where 16 seeds were matched with 16 qualifiers to decide the first round proper at the Crucible.

There was a bit more razzmatazz about the draw, as there is with most things concerning Barry Hearn. No more the draw being held on the radio (which ended in a cock-up when the same player was drawn against two different opponents), or in secret, as it was a few years ago, the outcome held over for a day before being announced. Did I hear the word “fix”?

But even Monday’s event was a pale and poor imitation of what was once the norm, when the draw took place at peak-viewing time on a Saturday afternoon as a main feature on Grandstand. Snooker may still be as popular, but it just doesn’t feature as near the front of the Beeb’s sportfolio…

No sooner had Rangers placed the Co-operative Insurance Cup in their trophy cabinet, than they heard they would be defending the Scottish Communities League Cup next season.

There probably has never been such an extreme switch in where sponsorship cash has been sourced. From the Co-op – mutual, benevolent, social and community based – to the £1 million promised by Scottish government from pimping, fraud and drugs.

Sorry. It doesn’t come directly from the Scottish government’s activities in pimping, money laundering and the likes. The investment actually comes from cash seized from criminals, through the Proceeds of Crime Act.

The Proceeds of Crime Cup? Now that would get you recognised. I hear the Colombian authorities are looking at having a Cocaine Bowl next season.

And just a thought. After all the brouhaha of the Old Firm game at Parkhead a few weeks ago, could there be a chance in the future where troublesome managers and players – already threatened by authorities and polis alike – might end up as unsuspecting sponsors of a cup competition their teams are entered in?

And Elizabeth Taylor dies. Many mourn her passing. I just reflect on the small fortune she probably cost me over the years.

See, because of her, I fell for the likes of Charlotte Brew, Jenny Hembrow, Linda Sheedy, Geraldine Rees, Joy Carrier, Valerie Alder, Jacqui Oliver, Gee Armytage, Venetia Williams, Penny Ffitch-Heyes, Tarnya Davies and Rosemary Henderson. Not in the way you would “fall” for a movie star.

No. I thought that at least one of them would follow Liz and win the Grand National, just as she did on Pie, by Two Get One Free out of The Local Bakery (that’s not an offer to look out for on your next shopping trip, but the sire and dam), in the 1944 film National Velvet.

So muggins here always thought that the dream world of the big screen might just become reality. Much to the delight of my local bookie.

Ach, he’s not bad really. If I stick twenty quid on them, he does give me 500/1 every year on Kilnockie winning the Scottish Cup.

Talking about Hollywood, that thingy called YouTube (or YouYaTube, as the rival Glesca derivative is known) makes stars out of ordinary folk. Just film it, edit and stick it up, and before very long there you are, entertaining people you have never been formally introduced to, who are laughing at your expense.

This blockbuster was sent to me the other day. No animals were harmed in the making of this video. However, the same cannot be said for pies and pints.

Judge for yourself, and please tell me a) if Voiceover Man from The X Factor has anything to worry about, b) if this is not the best hand-off you’ve ever seen and c) do people’s arses look bigger on screen?

PS – Should anyone take exception to this offering, my name is Roddy fae Selkirk…

I suspect like a great many, I get confused over who can play for who at international level. It’s now become the norm that you can play for anyone, even if you have represented a different country at an under-age level.

Take Victor Moses, sold to Wigan a few years ago as cash-strapped Crystal Palace hawked off any talent they had. Despite playing for England at under-17, under-19 and under-21 level, Moses might play for Nigeria against Ethiopia in the Africa Cup of Nations – which, apart from the word “of”, is ostensibly the same as the old African Nations Cup.

Moses was born in Kaduna, Nigeria, but has dual nationality. He may, quite possibly, have triple nationality. But Ireland are not sure whether they have a claim because of the similarity between national flags.

Anyway, the FIFA police are not happy because protocols and paperwork haven’t been completed, making Moses ineligible, or at least until someone finds a pen.

But hang on. Could Scotland have a claim? I mean, we had Jordan. And Moses would have been nothing without Joe…

Surely Moses is a British or UK passport holder. I’m sure someone at Wigan could have a word with him. Maybe James McCarthy for instance. Oh, maybe not the best choice there.

Of course, Nigeria have bigger problems. Goalkeeper Victor Enyeama has been ruled out of the game because of an ankle injury, and sadly not because he’d accidentally been stuck up someone’s arse…

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libyamap“May I congratulate the Prime Minister on his breathtaking degree of courage and leadership”…

David Cameron looked positively prime ministerial as members of the Commons took turns this morning to applaud him for the government’s success in securing a wide-ranging and widely-supported United Nations Security Council resolution on Libya.

Behind him, the beleaguered William Hague sat quietly lapping up a rare moment of glory. Like his distinguished predecessor Robin Cook, whose “ethical” foreign policy ended against his will in the tears and frustration and tragedy of Iraq, Hague looked rather like a garden gnome. This will not be Iraq, one could hear him thinking, because unlike then, on this occasion “we are all in this together”.

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The deputy head boy, Nick Clegg, offered his usual supercilious raised eyebrow to anyone daring to question the government’s wisdom. Not that there was much disagreement: Tory MP Mark Reckless goaded Cameron over the government’s defence cuts, suggesting that the operation would be enhanced if the (decommissioned) aircraft carrier Ark Royal, armed with (scrapped) Harrier aircraft, could take part; Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn asked why action was being taken to protect human rights in Libya but not in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (a question Cameron expertly avoided answering); there was an expression of concern over how long the RAF Tornados and Typhoons would have to fly missions over Libya; and would Britain become bogged down in its third war in just over a decade?

No, it would not, Cameron explained, because Resolution 1973 explicitly ruled out the use of ground troops. Support from the Arab League and the African countries on the Security Council – South Africa, Gabon and Nigeria – added weight to the international commitment to protect Libyan rebels from Gaddafi, Cameron said, implying, or so it seemed, that if ground troops were ever required, it would be Arab and African troops that were involved, not British and American.

Further distancing himself from the methods of Tony Blair, Cameron said the government would publish a (presumably undoctored) summary of the legal advice given by the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, ahead of a Commons debate on military action on Monday.

Even as Cameron was basking in the glory of his first major diplomatic success, in Tripoli Gaddafi’s foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, declared a ceasefire, ostensibly to “protect civilians”. But was this a ploy?

Gaddafi has said he will besiege the rebel capital, Benghazi, this weekend and send in security forces to root out the “traitors” and “fanatics”. He pledged that anyone who wasn’t a traitor could walk free, but how could he tell, and who would believe him?

Early this morning, Gaddafi’s spokesman had laughed off the UN resolution at a jocular press conference in Tripoli, saying that a no-fly zone would not bring peace to Libya, but would simply split the country. The bizarre press conference ended with a raucous rent-a-buffoon party, with green-bedecked Gaddafi supporters leaping from chair to chair around the elegant room, like a bunch of football hooligans.

A far cry, it has to be said, from the measured tones of the Commons congratulatory session.

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<em>Picture: Robert Proksa</em>

Picture: Robert Proksa

We are 12 days into the World Cup and the over-riding opinion, at least so far, is that the contest has been a tad lacklustre. Looking back on the last dozen days, though, there have been some points of note:

Disappointing African teams
Disappointing not just in terms of results, but also in their style of play. Yeah, yeah, So-So might not have yet made an appearance for the Ivory Coast, but he’s in the squad. Whatever happened to the unorthodox mayhem that marked out African teams in the period when they were “emerging”?

The galloping Cameroonians who almost reached the semis in 1990 played a game with which we were not familiar, as did the Nigerian Super Eagles a few years later. The players hared around near-randomly all over the pitch – not so much total football as total chaos football. It didn’t always work – in truth, it hardly ever worked – but it was a heck of an enjoyable watch.

Does the current dampening of this free-spirit approach come from African teams being coached by non-Africans? Algeria are overseen by one of their own, Rabah Saâdane, but all the sub-Saharan countries have imports from other continents. South Africa have the Brazilian, Carlos Alberto Parreira, while Nigeria have Lars Lagerbäck, a Swede named after a cut-price drinks offer at Morrison’s.

Ghana have the very Serb-sounding Milovan Rajevac, the once-wonderful Cameroon have opted for the French Rangers reject Paul Le Guen, while the Ivory Coast is Sven’s latest project.

How much better it would be – from the spectating point of view at least – if a whole bunch of European and South American teams were coached by Africans?

The vuvuzela
Chief talking-point of the tournament thus far. The bastard offspring of the hunting horn and the kazoo is almost as ubiquitous as David Pleat, and more mellifluous on the ear.

Pundits prefacing everything they say with “For me”
“For me, Rooney’s gone missing tonight”, or “For me, that was never a penalty”.

Sometimes, in a clever attempt at variation, some overpaid, under-literate Jabulani-head will try sticking it on the end of his sentences: “That was a diabolical decision, for me.”

“For me” is the current meaningless verbal tic of choice. It’s the successor to “like” and “you know”, and is in danger of taking over from “to be fair” and “obviously” (although “obviously” is endemic in general news reporting, not just sport – eg “The Saville Inquiry obviously lasted 12 years.”)

The BBC’s Mark Bright has been stricken with for-me-itis for a couple of seasons, and it has spread through the commentary and analysis community. Listen to Alan Shearer or Chris Waddle for a few minutes and you’ll hear it.

Thankfully Kenneth Wolstenholme pre-dated such things, otherwise his celebrated line would have been “They think it’s all over. For me, it is now.”

The lack – thus far at least – of any truly memorable game
Slovenia versus USA came closest: the Slovenians went two-nil up, the Superpowers clawed it back to parity, and would have claimed a thrilling victory had not the referee ruled out a perfectly OK-looking goal.

The other standard type of memorable game is the absolute drubbing, of which there has been only one: Portugal’s seven-nil dismantling of Old Labour United – aka North Korea. There was an irony in this, in that possibly the most famous World Cup turnaround was the only previous Portugal–North Korea encounter, the quarter-final played at Goodison in 1966. The Stalinists took a shock three-nil lead only for the Sons of Vasco da Gama to knock in five.

The current tournament badly needs something like that – ideally in the form of Argentina versus Spain in the final.

A pleasant absence of petulance and play-acting
OK, so Kader Keita got Kaka sent off – K versus K is never good, there was similar trouble when Karpov played Korchnoi for the world chess title – but generally the tournament has seen little in the way of ROFFI (rolls on floor feigning injury).

This air of earlier, gentler times will end come the knockout stages, particularly if Germany faces Italy or Argentina plays Brazil, but it’s been nice to see for a short while at least.

For an insight into what it was once like, the BBC footage of the aforementioned Portugal–North Korea game from 1966 is worth a look. This is entertaining for all sorts of reasons: the match itself, Eusébio’s very modern-looking skills, the shots of North Korean fans – or Chinese actors paid by the state – in the crowd.

Two moments stand out, however. One – halfway through the clip – is when the Portuguese forward Torres is hacked down and promptly hops, unaided, to the touchline to allow the penalty to be taken without delay. Modern version: several minutes of ROFFI, involving medics with stretchers and agents with sponsorship contracts.

Then, after the final whistle, a “Liverpool youngster” invades the pitch and approaches Eusébio for his autograph – which, to his credit, the four-goal hero duly provides. Modern version: boy gets flattened by stewards, and is later prosecuted under terrorism laws.

The comedic nature of England’s performance
Terry in June? Terry and June, more like. Appoint a manager who looks like Tommy Cooper and you inevitably get comedy.

The only funnier thing has been the French… for me.

by Stuart Crawford

<em>Picture: CLF</em>

Picture: CLF

Well, how was it for you? Were you sitting in Stetson and cowboy boots, draped in the Stars and Stripes, with Budweiser in hand when England took to the field against the USA? Did you feel anguished when Gerrard’s goal went in after four minutes, and did you rejoice when Robert Green’s howler let the USA off the hook? Were you line dancing in the street at the final whistle?

Or, like me, were you disappointed, but not really surprised, by the whole spectacle? After all the hype and jingoism from the English media, the actual performance on the pitch from their team reminded me of a damp penny banger on Bonfire night. This was the team, we were told, which was good enough to bring the Jules Rimet trophy back to England. If Saturday was anything to go by, they have about as much chance of doing that as Partick Thistle has of winning the SPL.

Where was the wunderkind Rooney, he who was destined (by the media) to carry his team to glory? Much huffing and puffing from one of England’s only true stars came to nothing.

Gerrard was strong, and resourceful, and brave as usual, but apart from his early goal was lost in the sea of English mediocrity. And Joe Cole, the one individual who could possibly have turned the tide, didn’t even make it on to the field.

Instead we had the clearly unfit Milner replaced by Wright-Phillips, who lost the ball every time he tried to weave his way past the USA defenders. Then we had Ledley King, a man with chronic injury problems well documented before the squad was even selected, replaced at half time because he was, yes, wait for it, injured. Crouch – when he got on – harrumphed and galumphed to little avail. And when Heskey looked certain to score he hit the ball straight at Tim Howard, the US goalkeeper, who probably said “thank you very much”.

Let’s be honest here. It wasn’t Robert Green’s excruciating mistake that caused England to draw with the USA. It was their inability to score again.

Aside from England’s stuttering performance, much credit should also go to the US team. Written off as underdogs in a Group labelled “easy” by most of the commentariat, the Americans produced a mature and disciplined display which suggests, if it hasn’t happened already, that they are ready to join the big boys on the world football stage.

Yes, they may call it soccer and their coach talks about “plays” as in American football, but they more or less matched England throughout and are clearly no pushover. Little wonder the front page of the New York Post carried the headline “USA Wins 1-1”. Rest of the world take note.

Elsewhere in the opening matches in South Africa it was almost all similar stale fare. The French looked useful but with no sting in the tale. Slovenia against Algeria was a tame affair. South Korea overpowered a shockingly poor Greece side. Ghana overcame an underperforming Serbian side in a tie that took some time to come to life. Only Argentina and Germany delighted the senses.

Although only beating Nigeria by one goal, the Argentines showed that there is much more in the locker to come. Messi shone, seemingly dribbling past numerous Nigerian defenders only to crash against the rock that was Nigerian goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama. He was magnificent. Without him it would have been 4 or 5- 0.

But it was Germany that caught the eye. Their demolition of the Australians – assisted, it must be admitted, by the dismissal of the Australian talisman, Tim Cahill, for a rash challenge early in the second half – was a joy to behold.

The Germans played the sort of fast flowing, incisive game that lit up the competition. Dismissed by much of the (English) media yet again before the event, they showed themselves to be true contenders. If you think the Scots attitude to England’s success is reprehensible, it is as nothing compared to the English dislike for all things to do with Germany’s football team.

Of course England will get better, and it would be a real shock if they didn’t progress from the group stage into the knockout phase. The other two teams in the group, Algeria and Slovenia, look eminently beatable even with England playing below par.

Interestingly, though, their fate may now rest with the USA. Should the USA also beat Algeria and Slovenia, and do so with a better goal total than England, then our southern cousins may only come second in the group. If Germany tops its group, then the two old foes will clash early in the knockout stage. On current performance there can be only one result. Early bath time for England.

There is much water to flow under the bridge before then in what is shaping up to be an interesting competition. But England’s assumed progression to at least the quarter finals no longer applies, if indeed it ever did. And we still have to see Brazil and Spain play!

WestminsterIt’s always an odd day, this. There’s a phoney war feel to things – or, rather, it’s like the period of go-slow downtime between Christmas and New Year, when no-one knows quite what to do, and there’s a sense of waiting for the clock to move on and the next instalment of excitement to arrive.

A press-the-pause-button kind of day. Turn on the TV or radio and the main news story, the one that has dominated the airwaves for weeks and will do so again for weeks to come, is being studiously avoided. Don’t mention the election.

Edward Stourton and the Radio 4 World At One team must have offered quiet praise to the heavens when President Umaru Yar’Adua of Nigeria died late yesterday, as it gave them something genuinely solid to chew on in today’s programme. (The more so given that Stourton was born in Nigeria.)

In the less restricted areas of the media – notably the blogosphere – things are carrying on apace, with chatter and speculation and assessment-by-anecdote. Over at politicalbetting.com, for instance, there’s a rolling (and intensely partisan) analysis of voter turnout across the country, the kind of thing that the BBC might just about allow itself to touch upon in the most general terms by saying that turnout has been “brisk”, or “slow”.

The mood seems to be that things are at the brisk end of the scale, at least in certain parts of the country and in certain seats. A politicalbetting.com poster named “houndtang” said: “Just voted in Hampstead and Kilburn, and there was a queue at 10.45. Polling clerk said turnout had been massive.” Similarly “Baskerville” noted that “40% of electorate [in the Wandsworth Common ward of Tooting] have voted already.”

Generally, the hope is that turnout might be markedly up on the 61.3% of 2005, even somewhere up towards 70%. But it’s a topic too geographically and psephologically varied to be subjected to piecemeal analysis.
My contribution to the jigsaw would suggest that things are on the quiet side. When voting soon after midday, the polling station was deserted apart from the two clerks who put down their sandwiches, shoved aside their large bag of boiled sweets, wiped their fingers and did the necessary paperwork. I met no-one in the street heading to or from the polling station, either.

There are some complicated pieces of thinking going on, however. A neighbour – a staunch and vociferous SNP supporter known to fly a saltire in his garden – tells me he is voting Conservative this time. It’s tactical with a double twist. We live in a constituency that is close to being a Labour–Conservative marginal (Labour won it in 2005), and where the SNP candidate is not at the races. My neighbour’s reasoning is that if the Tories form a government at Westminster (a place for which he has little time), they will inflict such inequity and injustice on Scotland that the case for independence will be made and the referendum will, in due course, be won. The intervening period of pestilence is, for him, a necessary evil; hence his decision to vote for Cameron.

Others simply seem uncertain. It was only some time after another neighbour – a mild-mannered, non-fringe-party kind of chap as far as I was aware – asked about the local UKIP candidate that I twigged he was considering voting for him. Nothing wrong with that of course – people can vote for whoever they like – but insofar as I had ever thought previously about my friend’s politics, I had seen him as leaning to one of the more established parties.

Chances are, a great many people are voting in tentative, unexpected and sometimes complicated ways like this – and chances are the overall election result will show signs of it in ways that are very hard to predict.

The same possible-UKIP voter also explained the curious total absence of lamp-post placards in these parts. The council banned the parties from adorning its street furniture in this way, because weeks after the last Holyrood election there were still large amounts of election tat to be seen flapping in the breeze.

So a victory for tidiness and a defeat for litter – but it further adds to the weird feeling of these few hours of lull in the political storm. Next to no broadcast-media discussion, no brightly coloured posters on the street-corner, not even any of those endearing/annoying loudspeaker Vote For vans, around here at least. A general election, at some level, ought to be fun, and this one feels like it’s struggling a bit in that regard.

Not for long, though. We’re almost through the lull. Normal service will, on the dot at ten o’clock, be resumed.