Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Birthdays, bicyles, translators and philosphers: the Women's Euros 2017

I'm currently in Holland with a group of students covering the Women's 2017 Euros for various newspaper and web outlets.  Here are some random thoughts on how it's going.

Not so many happy returns …

England players Toni Duggan and Karen Carney are celebrating their birthdays during the tournament.

That strikes me as quite unusual.  All things being equal, you would think that with 23 players in the squad, roughly speaking, two players would have their birthdays each month.  But all things are not equal.  Elite players are usually born between September and April.

It’s a well-studied phenomenon in men’s sport.  And it’s all to do with when you start school.  In the UK, children start school in the year they turn five, so if you are born on September 1st, you will be five on the day you start school.  On the other hand, if you are born on August 30th, you will be just a few days over four when you start.

As people get older, that 12 months won’t make much difference, but during your first year, the September children have been alive 25% more than the August children – this almost inevitably means that they are bigger, faster, stronger.  So, when the very first sports teams are being picked, they tend to be selected … and, of course, that means that they get the extra coaching, play more football, and develop even further ahead of their younger classmates.

It’s often argued that you need 10,000 hours practice to be exceptional at anything and it is really easy to see how the September children get further and further ahead of their August classmates.
The end result is that when elite teams go to tournaments, most of the players were born in the winter months and nobody celebrates their birthday while they are away.

As women’s football has become more organised and professional over recent years, the winter birthday rule has started to show.  While seven of the current squad have their birthdays during June, July, and August, don’t expect that to be the case in future tournaments.

So, the squad should probably enjoy their strikers’ birthdays as there aren’t likely to be many similar occasions in the future … but probably worth avoiding reminding Carney that she’s 30 this week and not many outfield players get to go to tournaments once they are 34 … so this could well be her last Euros finals!

Relax, it’s only football:

Managers and players are well known for their monosyllabic responses at Press conferences, but every now and then, we are treated to a nice turn of phrase or some homespun philosophy.

Who can forget Eric Cantona talking about seagulls, trawlers, and sardines? To this day, it’s probable that not even King Eric knows exactly what he meant. At least we all understood Brian Clough when he said that if God had wanted football to be played in the air, he would have put grass in the clouds.

Icelandic coach Freyr Alexandersson has entertained us both on the touchline and in the press conferences.

The 34-year-old has jumped around his technical area, wearing his heart on his sleeve.  To be fair, his team has lost both opening games by a single goal … and in both games they should probably have had a penalty.  Unsurprisingly, he has let his feelings be known to the fourth official.

Entertaining - coach Freyr Alexandersson
However, when he’s come to the post-match press conference, he has been calm and entertaining, putting the game into perspective.  

Asked how he would deal with the players psychologically after their first round defeat to France, he said they would be sad and frustrated for a few hours. “But when we wake up in the morning, the coffee will still be hot, and the grass will still be green.”

After losing again in their second round match with Switzerland, I asked Freyr whether he still thought the grass would be green, and the coffee hot.  “Yes, it will.  I might need a double, or even a triple, espresso, but this is only football.  There are people who are in far worse situations in their lives than us.”

Try telling that to the famous Bill Shankly who once said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that..”

Lost in translation:

It is quite a possible that any number of the foreign coaches have been expressing deep philosophical thoughts, but the English journalists just wouldn’t know.

Under Uefa rules, all press conferences are conducted in two languages – that of the coach or player speaking, and English.  So, if a coach responds to a question in her native tongue, a translator turns it into English for the rest of the press.

But do they?

It’s noticeable that the players and coaches speak for much longer than the translators.  So much so that I timed the difference when the Spanish coach was speaking at the post-match conference after his team had beaten neighbours Portugal 2-0.

Invited to make an opening statement, Jorge Vilda spoke for about 70 seconds, the translator reduced it to just 12 seconds of English.  His first three answers to questions from the press were slashed from 45 seconds to nine, from 26 to six, and from 20 to 10.

Spanish coach Jorge Vilda, player of the match Amanda
Sampero and their censorious translator.

It got worse for player of the match Amanda Sampero, her final answer was cut from 47 seconds to just six!

I caught up with the translator – who turned out to be the Spanish team’s press officer – and asked, as nicely as I could, what she was doing.  “I only translate the important words,” she said.

“In Spanish, the coach could talk for an hour and a half without saying anything.”

“Isn’t it the job of the journalists to decide what is important,” I asked. “Yes, but you can choose that from what I say.”

Presumably, that means we would hear nothing from her about the coffee drinking habits of her coach and we’d be left with the monosyllabic musings on groin strains and hamstrings.

What’s in a name?

It was difficult not to feel sorry for Icelandic substitute Elin Jensen.

It was bad enough that she came on late in the game and gave away the penalty which presented France with a 1-0 win.  But I’m guessing that she was already feeling a little isolated by the peculiarities of the Icelandic naming conventions.

So many daughters: the teamsheet for Iceland
Every single one of the starting 11 had a name which ended ‘dottir’.

Oddly, Icelanders do not have surnames, or family names.  Children are given a last name which is the first name of their father with the word ‘dottir’ or ‘son’ added.  So captain Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir, is the daughter of Gunnar.

To make it even more confusing, when naming a child, Icelandic parents have to pick a name from an official list of 1,853 approved names for girls.  Given that there are relatively few approved men’s names, it is not unusual for women to share both their first and last names with other women … which is why so many use their middle names!

Anyone who wants to use names not on the list has to ask the permission of the Icelandic Naming Committee, which will say no for various reasons, including because the name would be embarrassing for the child (so presumably no Daffodils, Bears, or Brooklyns!)

Which brings us back to substitute Elin Jensen – she’s one of only two players in the 23-strong squad whose name does not fit with the conventions.  

Why is that? Well thanks to the wonder of Twitter, I can tell you.  I put out an appeal for information and just half an hour later, an Icelandic academic, Magnús Árni Skjöld Magnússon – son of Magnus to you and me – had written to explain:

“It is quite simple really. Some Icelanders have traditional family names, either because they have "foreign" parents, grandparents or ancestors and others because they or their ancestors have adopted Icelandic family names, based on either patronyms (like Jensen, Stephensen etc.) or place names (Blöndal, Barðdal, Nordal etc) or something else. These two look like they are of Danish origin,” he said.

So, there we go.  It’s all clear.  I think.

Utrecht – best in the world

We are staying in a fantastic city: Utrecht.  It is undeniably beautiful with the old wharfs on the canals and the city centre parks.

But what makes it truly amazing is the city’s aim to become the ‘most bike friendly city in the world’.  

They are doing this by giving cyclists precedence over all other forms of transport.  

Cycle lanes are everywhere – in many places there will be two very wide cycle lanes, leaving space for only one narrow lane for cars travelling in both directions.  As a car driver, you have to give way to cyclists pretty much all the time.  I've been caught out more than once by a cyclist pulling out in front of me with no warning. 

The end result is that cycling really does dominate the city.  Here’s nine facts you might not know about Utrecht:
  • ·        The two busiest bicycle routes of the Netherlands are situated in Utrecht
  • ·        33,000 cyclists go along the busiest bicycle route in the city centre every day
  • ·        125,000 cyclists go through the city centre every day
  • ·        Cyclists get speed advice as they go along telling them what pace to go to avoid red traffic lights
  • ·        96% of the households in Utrecht has 1 or more bicycles; 50% 3 or more
  • ·        59% go to the city centre by bicycle
  • ·        43% of all journeys shorter than 7.5 kilometres are made by bicycle
  • ·        Bicycle parking places near Utrecht Central Station: 12,000 today; 33,000 by 2020
  • ·        Utrecht is building the largest bicycle park in the world (12,500 bicycles)
Which is all great … except that I’m driving a massive great mini-bus which barely fits down most of the roads!