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NTSF 095: Spanish World Cup champs, F1 fireworks, Lance’s Tour and more…

It has been a long, strange trip writing this column over the past two years. What began as a humble request to write a weekly post in a now-defunct group of the SI-affiliated fan site FanNation found itself moving along with me when I became the managing editor of Informative Sports. We had a great 20-month run at ISC, but now — just as my wife and I seem to be fond of finding a new residence once a year or so — the column moves yet again. With new technology at my fingertips, we should be able to cover even more ground weekly as the sports world rages around the globe. I hope you enjoy the new setting — the background might’ve changed, but the column is still vintage Bigalke — as we dive in as usual for another far-reaching look at a world’s worth of athletic achievement.

I have decided, though, that it was folly in the first place when I allowed the continuity to fall out of the column between the move from FanNation to Informative Sports. I have decided to forgo resetting the count of pieces; instead, I’ve decided to note it at its rightful count. The column may have seen many homes over its weeks of operation, but it is no less tenured for the wear and the nomadic existence. So for those that noticed I have gone straight from 68 to 95, it essentially comes down to the 26 editions that were done at FanNation getting added back into the total. Might as well clean up the statistics, if you will.

So what has been happening over the past week? We’ve witnessed a first-time champion crowned at the World Cup in South Africa, the men and women of tennis have parted their separate ways after the co-ed atmosphere of Wimbledon, and cycling has reached the high mountains and left a legend behind in its wake. A battle has emerged between teammates in Formula 1 as a team that should by all means have the technological advantage over its competitors continues to play favorites among its two drivers. And mere months after the last UEFA Champions League season finished, we’re already into the second round of qualifiers as smaller teams throughout Europe jockey for the chance to play amongst the big boys come autumn. Sit back, grab a beer or a cocktail, and enjoy as we kick-start the inaugural Sports Nickel edition of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America!

WRAPPING UP THE WORLD CUP…

Spain celebrates World Cup victory

Goalie Iker Casillas hoists the World Cup surrounded by his victorious teammates, shedding Spain's underachiever tag once and for all...

Over the past month, we’ve been treated to some of the best soccer players in the world uniting to compete for the glory of their nation. It is a treat we get but once every four years, a series of sixty-four games whittling down the 32 teams that survived regional qualifying over the preceding months into a champion. This time around, we were blessed with the potential to see a pair of teams competing in the final that were each lusting after their first World Cup championship. Only one could win… and ultimately it was the one that chose to play a more positive brand of the game

which prevailed. You can recap all my coverage from the past month in the Non-Traditional Sports World… here are excerpts from both the 3rd place match and the final:

  • 3rd Place Match/Germany v. Uruguay – The two losing semifinalists still had one match left to play before returning home from South Africa for an abbreviated summer rest before the all-too-soon start of the club season throughout Europe and other various points around the globe. Both teams came into the bronze medal matchup with a key component of their respective attacks returned from suspension. For Germany, four-goal wunderkind Thomas Muller was back to provide his electric pace to the offense of Die Mannschaft. On Uruguay’s side, Luis Suarez — the bane of Ghana after his handball on the goal line prevented a sure winner for the Black Stars and much maligned for his comments following the shootout survival of the Charruas — was back after just one game away despite the threats by FIFA to ban him longer due to the unrepentant, wholly intentional nature of his red-card foul. It would be a wide-open match, neither side holding anything back as both coaches, Germany’s Joachim Low and Uruguay’s Oscar Tabarez, knew all that was left was this one modicum of pride after missing out on the big final….   READ MORE
  • Championship/Spain v. Netherlands – The story really should be about Spain — the magic that is woven throughout the passes of their Barcelona-dominated starting eleven, the sound technical play that comes from spending most of the past three years togteher at the national level and for many at the club level as well, the ability to shuck decade upon decade of underachievement to script a new identity as champions. This story is about guys like Andres Iniesta, the midfield dynamo who created scoring chance after scoring chance throughout the tournament and then put the ball into the net himself in the final for the biggest goal of his career. It is about guys like David Villa, who tied with fellow finalist Wesley Sneijder and semifinalists Diego Forlan of Uruguay and Thomas Muller of Germany for the lead in goals scored in South Africa with five, each one an artistic testament to his skill both on and off the ball. It is about a stout back line that was the toast of the tournament… and able to play forward, Sergio Ramos cutting up the right and Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique dominating the box on set pieces and setting up the attack. It is about a team for whom possession was the pinnacle of their art, the tiki-taka serving as both offense and defense for this well-balanced side….   READ MORE

SPEAKING OF A LITTLE NATIONAL PRIDE ON THE LINE…

With Wimbledon all wrapped up, the men’s and women’s tennis tours have headed out on their own routes around the globe. For the men of eight nations, the time had come to contest the Davis Cup. This year marks the 99th edition of the competition, the most venerable national-team tournament in the sport’s long history. A team competition involving five matches — a doubles match and four singles tilts between teams of each nation’s best (or, as the case has increasingly been recently, the best from each nation that are willing to battle). The nation that wins is usually the one that can convince its best tour player to embrace his flag and play for pride.

Argentina was one of four nations to reach the semifinals of the prestigious Davis Cup men’s team tennis tournament, now in its 99th year…

This time around in the quarters we saw Novak Djokovic, fresh off a semifinal appearance at Wimbledon, leading the Serbians to a victory over rivals Croatia. In the rubber match, Djokovic knocked off Croat tower Marin Cilic — at 6’9″ one of the tallest men on the ATP Tour and a hard-hitting top-15 player to boot — in straight sets to claim the spot in the semifinals for his country. They will square off against another Eastern European power after the Czech Republic eased by Chile 4-1 in their quarterfinal tie.

On the other side of the draw, the Argentinians went further at the Davis Cup than they could at the World Cup. Instead of Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain, they have David Nalbandian to celebrate as their hero after the diminutive man with the two-handed backhand led his team to the semis. There they will face France after they knocked off defending champions Spain. The Spaniards, hoping for yet another world title after last year’s win and the success of their compatriots in South Africa, were beat soundly by the French to end their hopes of a three-peat. They began the tie horrendously, lacking world number-one Rafael Nadal’s powerful game to lead them as he rested his knees after conquering Wimbledon. France sent out Gael Monfils to knock off David Ferrer, and then Michael Llodra defeated Fernando Verdasco to begin the tie to go up 2-0. In the doubles that followed, Llodra and Julien Benneteau defeated Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez pulled off a brilliant 6-7 6-4 6-3 7-6 match to send France through to face the Argentine onslaught. Stay tuned here at Sports Nickel as we await those semifinals later in the year…

AS ONE LEGEND GROWS, ANOTHER FADES…

Coming into this year’s Tour de France, all the buzz was about Lance Armstrong’s last ride. Despite looking less than his usual self throughout the spring preparations, the Texan managed to steal away from his last prep race at the Tour de Suisse with a second-place finish. After taking third at the 2009 Tour de France, all systems seemed a go for one last assault on the Alps and Pyrenees by the seven-time champion. Of course, there would be a tough field of contenders to shake off, but that had never stifled Armstrong’s ambitions before.

One thing he couldn’t account for, though, were the ravages of time. The mind may be willing, but the body can’t always act on those desires. And for a rider whose very legend had been burnished by staying upright when his rivals crashed, turnabout presented the cruelest twist of fair play. He came into the race with the strongest team, the winningest active director and a crew of mechanics the envy of most other teams. But all the preparation in the world is worth nothing when the body gives in.

Armstrong's jersey in tatters after Stage 8...
The only thing that might have made the pains of Stage 8 bearable for Lance would be knowing a maillot jaune was waiting on the other side…

Seeing Armstrong passed by as the race entered the Alps, we were witness to the passing of the baton to a new generation of grand-tour studs. Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, the top two riders in last year’s race, have picked up right where they left off last July. Even guys like Ivan Basso, winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia, current world champion Cadel Evans and former Giro and Vuelta a España winner Denis Menchov have been able to hold their wheel throughout this race. We’re either going to see an Iberian invasion on Gaul yet again, or the first Luxembourger since Charly Gaul is going to break through to bring the tiny nation a new maillot jaune to celebrate. Either way, we’ve seen the spotlight dim on this last act of Armstrong’s career.

Before the rest day, I was covering all the daily news and notes from the race over in the Non-Traditional Sports World at FanNation. With the move to this new home, we will be able from here on out to consolidate all the daily coverage from around the globe in one location. So for those who didn’t catch the earlier material (and those who were following earlier but have missed the recent stage notes), here are excerpts and links to every stage raced so far:

  • Stage 5 – Epernay to Montargis – The big question in the few sprints contested so far at this year’s Tour de France had been, “What ever happened to the Mark Cavendish who was sweeping a half-dozen stages before withdrawing ahead of the mountains last year?” The heir apparent to the dominance of sprinters like Mario Cipollini, unwinding his finishing kick behind a fearsome train of equally-potent speedsters in the Columbia train just as the Lion King used to during the mid-nineties on the backs of the wheels of his Saeco train, Cavendish had been noticably absent from contention as Alessandro Petacchi swept both of the first two sprint finishes on Stage 1 and Stage 4….   READ MORE
  • Stage 6 – Montargis to Gueugnon – Go figure… just when people were getting ready to leave Mark Cavendish dead in the water as far as the competition for the green jersey to the top point-earning sprint specialist in the Tour de France, he goes and strings together dominant back-to-back victory showings before the race hits the Alps. His sprint win in Gueugnon today, taken over Tyler Farrar (Garmin) as the American persevered despite his crash-induced injuries from prior in the week to maintain runner-up on the stage, gave him twelve already for his young career. He has now matched the number of Tour stage victories that his mentor, six-time green jersey winner Erik Zabel, amassed in a legendary sixteen-year career.…   READ MORE
  • Stage 7 – Tournus to Station des Rousses – It was yet another great day for the French masses assembled along the roadsides as the first uphill stage commenced at the Tour de France on Saturday. For his second stage win of the Tour, matching Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish in accomplishing the feat, Sylvain Chavanel unleashed a perfect counterattack on the slopes of the Cote de Lamoura to solo into Station des Rousses nearly a minute ahead of his nearest challenger and over fourteen minutes ahead of the maillot jaune, Fabian Cancellara. In the process, he nabbed back the yellow jersey he only got to wear for a day earlier in the week and showed ahead of the high mountains that France is taking their domestic grand tour seriously this year….   READ MORE
  • Stage 8 – Station des Rousses to Morzine-Avoriaz – Rare are the occasions when a sports fan really sits back and gasps at what he or she has just witnessed. Unfortunately for me, I had to race out the door after the end of Stage 8 or I would’ve been able to pen this sooner. But then, I also got a day to reflect upon what had just unfolded — albeit a day that was also filled with listening to every minute of the FIFA World Cup final on the radio — as the Tour de France took another inexplicable twist on an unpredictable 2010 edition. It was the first summit finish of the race, the entry into the Alps and the first real test of this year’s race. It was a day that saw a changing of the guard completing itself, a legend fading into obsolescence as one of the brightest young faces of the sport in years ascended toward a stage victory and a prime spot in the general classification. While other riders — most notably Cadel Evans (BMC), who would trade his rainbow-striped jersey of the current world champion for the maillot jaune of the race leader after finishing amongst the leaders on the final climb — would play a role, this day truly belong to two men: Lance and Andy….   READ MORE
  • Stage 9 – Station des Rousses to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne – And now we’re really just down to two men who have a shot at this Tour de France. Just as we’d started predicting, as soon as they placed 1-2 in last year’s race, the 2010 Tour is going to be a showdown between Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck and Astana’s Alberto Contador. After joining forces to drop all their rivals and catch the breakaway in the final kilometer, they have distanced themselves far beyond the rest of the field. It isn’t even a fair fight anymore. Just look at all the pre-race favorites now left far back, choking on the Alpine dust of the two young men dueling for the maillot jaune. The road up the Col de la Madeleine — the first hors-categorie climb of this year’s race — was a slog that cut many an elite name down to size. It is a who’s who of carnage scattered along the edges of France’s highways and byways. Nobody has been spared… but at least these guys have been more lucky than their fellow favorites, Frank Schleck and Christian Vande Velde, who have already crashed out of the race….   READ MORE
  • Stage 10 – Chambery to Gap – It was Bastille Day in France, marking the date in 1789 when the masses rose up and declared their independence from tyranny at the hands of an unjust monarch. And for the 33 Frenchmen still in the peloton at the Tour de France by this midpoint juncture, their entire childhood and professional career has been spent dreaming of a stage win on the national holiday. Fifteen French riders had walked away with the spoils on July 14 since the end of World War II. However, no domestic rider since David Moncoutie in 2005 has succeeded in pulling it off; and with a now-35-year-old Moncoutie not included among the nine riders selected by Cofidis this year, none of the 33 still in the race had ever won a July 14 stage in their career…. READ MORE

FIREWORKS AT SILVERSTONE AS RED BULL WINS AMIDST ACRIMONY…

Red Bull managed to get back to its winning ways at Silverstone this past Sunday, Mark Webber holding off McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton at the finish to move into third in the drivers standings. But the win went wholly against the team’s strategy — as Webber couldn’t resist declaring as he took the British Grand Prix, “Not bad for a Number 2 driver…”  — after they’d already banked on Sebastian Vettel in qualifying. The removal of the latest-version front wing from Webber’s car to replace one which had broken on Vettel’s in practice runs may just have ultimately fractured this team, spoiling the unity which had allowed the Austrian team to prosper alongside the sport’s historical stalwarts such as McLaren and Ferrari.

Vettel may have been handed the primo equipment, but his teammate only used it as fuel to propel him to victory at Silverstone on Sunday…

But last year we saw, when Ross Brawn’s Brawn GP team was able to take both the drivers and the manufacturers title with Jenson Button on the strength of its early equipment advantage over the other teams, that a smaller outfit can still pull some major results against the powerhouses of Formula 1. This year that team should’ve by all rights been Red Bull — with the chassis and the setup put out there by mechanical magician Adrian Newey, this team should be well ahead of all others in both team and individual standings. But these little hiccups have erupted over and over again. One thing or another has prevented this team, more often than not the fastest in qualifying at races, from getting the results it rightfully should at the finish line on race day.

When you have the best technology, failing to get the best out of it is either the fault of management or of the drivers. And since both Webber and Vettel are still banking victories so far this season — Silverstone representing Webber’s third win to Vettel’s two in Malaysia and last week in Valencia at the European Grand Prix — it is hard to justify faulting the drivers themselves. There have been times where the McLaren tandem of Hamilton and Button, or Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, have been able to challenge them; naturally good drivers are going to have days where they are unbeatable. But just once (Hamilton in Montreal) has someone other than either Vettel or Webber claimed the pole position. With the cars they have, that should be a highway to far greater dominance than either has exhibited.

The team has two fine handlers of their rigs. But the ways in which the management has second-guessed one driver or another throughout the year has been detrimental to their overall success. Brawn served as a mentor to Button last year as they each resurrected flagging careers; this time around one wonders what the top brass at Red Bull has been thinking. Despite their protestations to the contrary, all their actions have indicated favoritism toward Vettel. The 23-year-old German, runner-up to Button last season, is the great  hope for the future for the team. But Webber, 4th in 2009 and at 33 hardly a washed-up has-been, has been just as strong this year. As the fissures form in the garage, we are sad witnesses to a dynasty that could’ve and probably should’ve been…

TOOLING AROUND THE NET…

For those of you who might not have sat down to read this column, I am a voracious reader. I check books out of the library six at a time; thank goodness I work at the University of Oregon, where books on any subject you could ask are diverse and plentiful. I also plow through magazines and sift through innumerable quantities of online content. Sometimes I find a real gem that I can’t help but pass along. That’s what this section of the column is for, my favorite online reads of the week. Without further ado, here are my five favorites of the week:

Vanity Fair - Hans van der Meer - Photo of recreational soccer in Marseille, France

The French may not have had a World Cup to celebrate... but with pickup soccer field like these to get out and blow off steam, who's complaining?

  • Team friction costs Red Bull dear (Martin Brundle/BBC/12 July 2010)As I discussed in the last segment, the Red Bull team has been anything but harmonious throughout 2010. Brundle, the BBC’s F1 correspondent, had pretty much the same thoughts I did as I watched the race. The discord could be detrimental to the ultimate fault: losing titles to a team with inferior equipment and drivers no more talented than what the team has in its stables…

  • How cups of coffee can keep marathon runners full of beans (David Derbyshire/ dailymail.co.uk/30 June 2010)My wife, who works for one of the first 100% fair-trade, shade-grown organic coffee importers in the United States, passed this article along to me. I’m glad she did. Researchers are finding that caffeine, removed six years ago from the banned list by the World Anti-Doping Agency, does indeed provide a measurable (~6%) benefit in high enough doses for endurance athletes. If these findings from the University of Coventry’s Department of Biomolecular and Sports Science are corroborated further, we might just see WADA reconsider its stance on this widespread, wholly legal drug…
  • Torres showed how homegrown superstars could leave with class (Ben Lyttleton/SI.com/09 July 2010)With how much talk centered last week around LeBron James, the newly-minted Beelzebub of Cleveland, it only seemed fitting that somebody should take up the mantle to write about another side of the fence. I knew I couldn’t do it… the only examples we get in American sport are of guys like James or Brett Favre, mercenaries looking for their next stop on the pillaging tour. That holds true through most of the world, but at least one man who just collected a World Cup winner’s medal knew the right way to treat the club that nurtured him into the superstar he currently is…
  • Soccer Through an Artist’s Lens (Hans van der Meer/Vanity Fair/09 July 2010)The beauty of soccer, the reason it is played throughout the world despite the fact it still ranks behind the entrenched classics here in the United States, is that it can be played in any space available. It can be scaled down to go indoors, it can be taken to the beach, and you don’t even need grass to play. Vanity Fair, ahead of the World Cup final, presented a spread of photos by van der Meer, the photographer of the book European Fields: The Landscape of Lower League Football. It is truly a tribute to the game’s roots…
  • The Future of Soccer (Jack Greene/Sports Nickel/13 July 2010)Not to toot our own horn too much here, but one of my fellow Informative Sports writers really made a brilliant first foray onto our new site. He is gazing into the crystal ball to make some early predictions about what various national teams might look like ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Be sure to keep following along… he’s covered England and Argentina so far, and will be continuing with the series for as long as it continues drawing interest — so keep on reading every day as he keeps breaking down the future of the beautiful game…

ON THE DOCKET…

It seems that, week after week, we’ve had one major event after another this summer. The Giro d’Italia was stacked upon by the French Open, which in turn saw the World Cup begin in its wake with Wimbledon and then the Tour de France soon following. The IAAF has slotted in its new Diamond League right into the calendar, putting its elite events into a position of greater prominence. Everywhere you turn, something is right there to capture the mind and hold it for the long haul if you let it. Here’s what I’ll be doing my damnedest to catch during the coming week:

  • Tour de France (through July 25) – With Schleck and Contador at the head of the pack, the race is about to roll into the Pyrenees with hopes of yellow floating in their heads. They’re the only ones left really in the discussion, clearly the head of the pack, but the duel between their Saxo Bank and Astana teams will be a legendary showdown. We also have just seven points separating Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Petacchi in the battle for the green sprinter jersey, and the King of the Mountains polka-dots might yet find new shoulders with all the Pyrenean climbs coming up. Be sure to catch all the action at Versus or online through steephill.tv!
  • Tennis action all around – The men’s and women’s tours have split their separate ways, not to meet until they come back together at Flushing Meadows for the U.S. Open in August. The ATP Tour finishes up its contests in Bastad and Stuttgart this weekend before continuing new tournaments in Atlanta and Hamburg, while the women of the WTA Tour crown champions in Palermo and Prague on Sunday prior to the start of the next series of events in Slovenia and Austra. The Tennis Channel will have all the action for you, and action can regularly be found here online as well…
  • IAAF Diamond League (Paris on Friday/16 July; Monaco on Thursday/22 July) – The stars of track recently wrapped up events at Lausanne and Gateshead, and the Diamond League schedule is in the heart of its order. Usain Bolt has promised to unleash his world-record-holding kick in both the 100m and 200m events in Paris, and all the rest of track’s stars will be out for at least one of these two French events. Not all the action from Gaul is cycling-related this month thanks to the new Diamond League calendar!

And with that, welcome to all of those who are being introduced to the mind of a Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America for the first time… and welcome back, to all of those readers who have followed from the FanNation or Informative Sports eras. It’s great to be here at the new place, able to offer you all the news and notes from around the world you’ve come to enjoy over the years. And thanks to the new technologies at my disposal, stay tuned for more great ways to keep up with the global sports world over the coming months here at Sports Nickel!



Zach is a writer and editor who covers a wide array of sports both traditional and non-traditional. Formerly the managing editor of Informative Sports before joining Sports Nickel, Zach has been covering events international and domestic for various publications since 2006. Find him @zbigalke on Twitter.

Zach Bigalke has written 289 posts for SportsNickel.com

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