The New Guard on Track for Rio

It’s a chilly, rainy Friday night in the south-west of Sydney. A few hundred spectators have turned up at a venue that housed legends 13 years ago, but now hosts few that could be called household names. It’s a far cry from Rio.

But it’s here at the Dunc Gray Velodrome, that a new wave of Australian track cyclists have taken the first step of a journey. A long and unpredictable journey. A journey that they hope ends in Olympic Gold. And also in redemption. Redemption for a sport that led the way for so many years, before being blown away by the British juggernaut.

The familiar names of the recent Aussie track programme are no around. Perkins, Meares, Bobridge, Dennis, Tomic, Meyer, Howard. The Road. Retirement. Rest. Now it’s the new breed. Morton, Bullen, Davison, O’Shea, Edmondson.

While there’s not quite a root and branch restructuring of the track programme going on, the plates are shifting. Michael Hepburn arrived for one last hurrah in the rainbows. In just his 5th track ride since London, he recorded the 5th fastest time in history in the 4000m Pursuit. Heppy was a key member of the Pursuit team that led the world for much of the last four years before falling in a heap in Olympic year. He may well go to Minsk for this months World’s but it will be a victory lap. The future of the pursuit squad lies in the South.

South Australia to be precise. SASI Super coach Tim Decker is taking control of the pursuit programme, and things will change. The focus on numbers, data, outputs will give way to a focus on the athlete as a person. South Australia have had a stunning Championship, with their mens quartet breaking four minutes. Decker arrives at the national team in a position of strength.

The sprint squad is set for an overhaul too, with the emergence of the NSW programme as a force. The team sprint victory over a strong SA unit raised an eyebrow. And on Friday night Mitch Bullen swept the highly fancied Matthew Glaetzer with a ride of audacity and brute strength. Bullen imposed himself on the race and found a gap through sheer presence. Dare I say it was Hoy-esque.

The women’s team is set for less dramatic changes, but the absence of Anna will allow the existing talent to shine. The spotlight will be turned elsewhere. And the first place will be Annette Edmondson.

Nettie is the next bona fide star of Australian cycling. Articulate, photogenic, and outrageously talented. World and Olympic medals in 2012. Two national titles so far in 2013, and surely favouritism for the Ominum in Minsk. And anything else she fancies. Nettie is the leader of a band of endurance riders that are the envy of the world. Add Melissa Hoskins, Amy Cure, Ash Ankudinoff. The Women’s pursuit squad will be the strongest group for years.

In the sprints, the gap year for Meares was the chance for Kaarle McCulloch to shine. But suddenly the gap left by Anna is being filled by two emerging sprinters with vastly different backgrounds. Steph Morton won Paralympic gold as a pilot last year. This week she claimed team and individual sprint gold, beating McCulloch in the process. Morton has arrived at the nationals leaner and meaner. On the bike she resembles Meares in style. A powerful diesel that hits the front and never looks like losing it.

The other challenger is Queensland teenager Taylah Jennings. Jennings dominated last years World Juniors in Invercargill, sweeping all six events in the Ominum, before switching to the sprints for her first senior year. She cuts a diminutive figure on the bike, with her build still more akin to a pursuiter, but she is dynamite. Bronze in the individual sprint was her initial reward from the nationals, but this is just the start. Her future is bright.

All of the riders I’ve spoken about are looking, not just at Minsk in 3 weeks, or Glasgow in 18 months, but toward Brazil. The boards of Rio and the Australian resurgence.

Advertisements

Marquees in Fashion Across the Globe

For your average Joe, Brazilian club football is a bit of a mysterious beast. The name Santos will be familiar. Maybe even Flamengo. The more hardcore football fan will nod wisely at Fluminese, and Corinthians and Sao Paulo. Maybe even Palmeiras. But what of the less than glamorously named Botafogo?

Blank looks.

Ok then what if I told you they were a powerhouse 100 years ago? Jairzinho, World Cup legend, is a club hero? Garrincha and Gerson too. RIng any bells?

Probably not. You see Fogao – Great Fire – are seldom seen on the big stage these days. No Copa Lib triumphs. No recent superstars. The sole national title, achieved in 1995 thanks mainly to a swag of goals form occasional national team striker Tulio, was even overshadowed by relegation 7 years later. A fall from grace after a brief golden period.

Back in the top flight, but seen as workmanlike, modern day Fogao have lived in the shadows of the glamour boys of Rio football. Flamengo and it’s big names. Fluminese and it’s recent football, even Vasco, the boys with the cool kit, and continental trailblazers have left Botafogo behind.

But this season, something has changed. It’s a change we’re seeing here in the A-League. Botafogo have gone all marquee on us.

On the 30th of June this year, Clarence Seedorf, he of the 87 caps, 4 Champions league titles, member of the FIFA 100 and the Real Madrid Team of the Century, and owner of the deepest voice in football, put pen to paper with Botafogo and became the Club’s first genuine superstar in years.

Seedorf’s move follows the trend of the Campeonato Brasileiro being able to not only keep it’s young stars, but also attract plenty of talent to it’s shores. Alongside Seedorf, the likes of Wagner Love, Luis Fabiano, Deco and Diego Forlan have all made the move to Brazil over the past few years, with startlets like Neymar, Ganso and Leandro Damiao resisting the lure of the Euro, for the time being at least.

The booming Brazilian resources industry means the local economy is in fine fettle, with the local currency providing players with plenty of reasons to stick around, or give Serie A a go.

Seedorf’s arrival sparked hysteria amongst the Fogao faithful. In the season opener, played 2 months before Seedorf’s arrival, just over seven thousand hardy souls took to trip out the much maligned, and unloved Engenhao as the home side recorded a 4-2 win over Sao Paulo. Fast forward to Seedorf’s debut against Gremio. Same venue. Nearly thirty five thousand on hand for the Dutch debut.

Seedorf is on T-Shirts, billboards and TV ads around Rio. He is a star. An expensive one too, at a reported $65000 a week. However, and in a cautionary tale for the A-League, the novelty seems to have worn off a touch with the crowds. A few weeks later just over five thousand came to see the win over Figueirense, and in subsequent games, gates of between fifteen and twenty thousnad have been the norm, well in excess of the league average, but disappointing in the light of that opening day crowd.

I saw Seedorf first hand last week, after venturing out to Rio’s Olympic athletics venue for the match with Corinthians. The crowd was a touch below seventeen thousand, but made a noise double that, helped by a raucous travelling party from Sao Paulo. The game was entertaining, if a little scrappy at times, but Seedorf was brilliant.

He was involved in everything that was good about Fogao, popping up wide left, wide right, through the middle, in front of the back four. Despite his years, he showed energy that put many of his teammates to shame, coupled with the touch and vision that you’d expect from a player of his calibre. Two goals in the draw were his reward, plus the adoration of the home crowd, who stopped getting on the back of their coach, former Kashima boss Oswaldo de Olivieria, to lay themselves down at the feet of their hero.

But Seedorf can’t save Botafogo or the Brazilian league alone. He is one of a number who are arriving, and whilst things are bright financially, overall the footballing picture is uncertain. Crowds, for a country of Brazil’s status and population are poor. The calender is messy, the prices too high, the stadiums ill suited and the football often below par.

The local game needs a boost, and like in Australia, the big names are providing one. But it’s only one part of a much bigger jigsaw.