OPINION:

Chris Rattue breaks down the winners and losers from the weekend’s sparse sports action, and the wider world of sport.

New Zealand Football – loser

Just 11 years ago, the All Whites rode a wave of public enthusiasm from a qualifying game against Bahrain in Wellington, to a stellar performance at the World Cup finals in South Africa.

The sports realists knew this rapid-fire football popularity wouldn’t last, yet hoped the game would avoid sinking back to the depths. Unfortunately, it has been glug-glug-glug ever since.

From a discredited national coach of a forever underperforming Football Ferns team, to a non-existent domestic profile for football and even more bizarre happenings like a phantom All Whites fixture against England at Wembley, the Kiwi game is battling.

This air of gloom includes the Wellington Phoenix, whose vibrant profile around the time of that 2011 World Cup has disappeared into the mire.

The All Whites meanwhile are reduced to playing countries many of us have barely heard of (I’m talking the victory against Curaçao over the weekend), in remote locations, if they play at all.

It is a sad state of affairs, particularly for those who remember the glory days of a wonderful national league in the 1970s, and the magic of the 1982 World Cup campaign.

Times have changed, the world has moved on and the challenges are much greater now. All of New Zealand’s domestic sport is in a parlous state.

But New Zealand Football needed a more dynamic and innovative administration.

New Zealand Football – winner

However, the pandemic has treated the national men’s team well in one respect.

They should prevail at a 2022 World Cup qualifying tournament in Qatar early next year, after being spared the tricky business of playing small Oceania nations at their home venues.

New Zealand’s co-hosting of the women’s 2023 World Cup also holds plenty of exciting possibilities, although the optimism would be greater if the Football Ferns could get their act together.

Boxing – the winners include a new perspective on Muhammad Ali

Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder have entered the pantheon reserved for boxing’s finest trilogies, after their epic heavyweight contest in Las Vegas.

However, one boxing three-parter will always stand uncontested when it comes to being the greatest.

The duels between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the first half of the 1970s captivated the world at a time when the extraordinary Ali was probably the most famous person on the planet.

Ali v Frazier is also the most famous rivalry in sport, bar none, one that also devastated the two champs.

I interviewed Frazier in Auckland in 2005 and his speech was decidedly slurred, although an aide put that down to the effects of a car accident.

But the brutal third Ali-Frazier fight in particular damaged both men, and Ali’s ridiculously foolhardy late-career bout against Larry Holmes is nothing short of a tragedy, knowing the Parkinson’s disease fate which awaited him.

The wonderful news is the release of a new documentary on Ali which captures his extraordinary life in a wider context while reflecting boxing’s finest era including – of course – the Frazier rivalry.

I don’t think the docu-series ‘Muhammad Ali’ has officially arrived in New Zealand yet, but internet sleuths can find it. Hopefully, surely, it will get here soon, somehow. It is worth the wait, or hunting for.

Directed by the famed documentarian Ken Burns, it is a four-part masterpiece. I would give it a rating of two fists up and then some.

‘Muhammad Ali’ has drawn some criticism with questions as to why such an important piece, from America’s Public Service Broadcasting, was not made by a black film maker.

And yes, a black perspective would have been compelling and important, although Burns is at pains to say his team, while led by white co-directors, is very inclusive with many people of colour and women involved.

Burns is a master of his craft – there is no such thing as a bad Ken Burns documentary. Compared to some of his many other subjects, he has a lot more film footage to weave into the Ali story. And no one lights up a screen like Muhammad Ali.

Ali emerged in and helped shape some extraordinary times – civil rights, the Vietnam War et al. Burns captures it all in a series which runs to nearly eight hours.

Ali’s treatment of Frazier, via a stream of derogatory and race-based slurs, is the one major knock on his career, although he also came to regret distancing himself from and criticising the black activist Malcolm X. Beyond that, he was a man of unique charisma and style.

The many contributing stars to the Burns series include the former heavyweight Michael Bentt who provides outstanding boxing analysis, but the old film clips alone are worth the watch.

On the topic of Burns and boxing, I’ll throw in another recommendation, his piece on the first black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, a man equally as fascinating, flamboyant and significant as Ali.

Newcastle United – winner

There has been a justifiable and heart-warming outcry over human rights issues since Saudi Arabia bought the underachieving English Premier League football club.

But asking a football club, and a league, to carry the load when it comes to moral duty is a bit much when Governments themselves are so lax.

Where do you draw the moral line with sports club ownership? That is the problem, particularly when democracies themselves have very little room to preach.

America, the leader of the free world, has an appalling human rights record within its own borders, so bad that a Black Lives Matter movement emerged just a couple of years ago.

We’re not exactly squeaky clean in this country, one of many who happily acquiesce to China, despite its appalling treatment of a Muslim minority.

Sport, like democracies, pays lip service to human rights. When push comes to shove, money talks much louder. And the Saudis had England over an oil barrel. Not that it took much persuasion.

The EPL threw away the moral compass in 2003 when it allowed Roman Abramovich, the controversial Russian resource raider, to buy Chelsea.

Of the major football powers, probably only Germany operates the sport at the top level in a socially conscious way.

This peculiar and long-held German attitude to football would be difficult for other major football nations to suddenly emulate, even if they wanted to.

Despite sport’s love of portraying its health-giving properties, the professional world is one of dog eat dog. The ethics of the corporates who back sport can easily be questioned, on many grounds.

Singling Newcastle out is worthy but compared to more complex issues of who puts money into sport, they are simply a more obvious target.

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