Bundesliga return from coronavirus gives hope to world's top leagues

Bayern Munich's French defender Benjamin Pavard (L) celebrates scoring their second goal with Bayern Munich's Polish forward Robert Lewandowski during the German first division Bundesliga football match FC Union Berlin v FC Bayern Munich on May 17, 2020 in Berlin. (AFP)
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Updated 18 May 2020

Bundesliga return from coronavirus gives hope to world's top leagues

  • The first round of the Bundesliga was played behind closed doors

DUBAI: Arsene Wenger, as ever, summed it up perfectly.

“This is a short term solution, not long term. But it’s still the best way to finish the season.”

Halfway through the first weekend of Bundesliga football, or any top European football in over two months, the former Arsenal manager was enjoying the return of football.

He was not alone. Football fans around the globe, starved of action since almost all major leagues were halted due to the coronavirus crisis, were tuned in as well. Everyone it seemed, even those who don’t usually watch German football, were looking for pointers going forward. And the general consensus among fans has been one of cautious, but obvious, relief. It’s good to have football back.

The first round of the Bundesliga was played behind closed doors and had, before kick-off, split most supporters between those who believed this was a karaoke version of the game and barely justified being played, and those who, like Wenger, believe any football is better than none.

Chris McHardy, Head of Sport, Dubai Eye 103.8 radio, is a long-time follower of German football and, though initially conflicted at the return of Bundesliga action, admitted it has been welcome sight.

“Whilst I can understand those who say 'football isn't important right now', from a selfish point of view, the return couldn't have come soon enough,” he said. “Yes, it was odd without fans but I'll take a diluted affair rather than nothing at all, so long as the authorities can ensure the players’ ongoing safety. Roll on next weekend.”

In the eight completed matches played on Saturday and Sunday, there were 18 goals scored, with Borussia Dortmund’s 4-0 thrashing of rivals Schalke in the Revierderby catching the eye. 

“To say some of the defending was 'schoolboy' would be doing a great disservice to the schoolboys across the land. I'm looking at Schalke's entire backline and Frankfurt's Almamy Toure in particular,” McHardy said. “Overall, though, I was pleasantly surprised by the standard. Erling Holland's sumptuous finish in Dortmund's rout of Schalke was my own highlight of the weekend, after his 11 word post-match interview of course.”

McHardy believes that any success in Germany will encourage the return of football across the globe, even if it’s just to complete the interrupted seasons.

“The key takeaway is that it can be done,” he added. “Yes, it's not ideal, and the game is a poorer one without fans, but unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. Credit must go to the Bundesliga and its clubs for setting aside individual interests for the good of the collection. There's one league that ought to be taking notes.”

English Premier league, it’s your move.

Faris Abdulrazzaq, a Liverpool fan but also an avid watcher of the Bundesliga and other European leagues as well, said it was joy to watch football again.

“After almost a two-month absence, which is longer than the usual summer break in football, this has been the longest spell without the beautiful game,” he said. “And while the return has been for only one of Europe’s top five leagues, it’s really less about the quantity and more about what it represents. In broader terms, it’s a clear signal to the world that life must go on. More specifically, for football fanatics, it’s  a step in the right direction to get the whole game back into full swing.”

Crucially, it was evident that the players themselves, after rumors of concerns about health and safety, were enjoying themselves too.

"I must admit it at first it was heartbreaking to watch this week's round of the Bundesliga with empty stadiums and a strange echo coming out of the TV,” he added. “But what impressed me most was the effort those players have put into the the matches I watched so far. A clear indication that everyone is giving it their all despite the lack of atmosphere.”

Like McHardy and many others, Abdulrazzaq is keen to see how the successful restart in Germany, so far at least, will translate to resumption of football elsewhere. Especially the English Premier League.

“As the German teams and the rest of us are fully aware, this restart will not only give hope and joy, but will also provide a blueprint for other leagues still aspiring to resume the action,” Abdulrazzaq added. “A successful experiment here, means more to all of us, as it would clearly help push the go button for the Premier League and eventually the Champions League to return to action.”

With most fans keeping an eye on developments in Europe, other leagues around the world have been setting up their own plans for return of football. 

In the Middle East, that could well likely not be before September or October, when weather conditions will allow for outdoor activities. The Bundesliga, despite the media attention over the last few days, was not the first major league to return to action. In South Korea, a country that has dealt with the spread of Covid-19 more competently than most European nations, football had already resumed.

But for the time being, its the return of the Bundesliga, and potentially imminent Premier League, La Liga and Serie A returns that are grabbing the headlines.

Omar Al-Duri, a FIFA-certified football coach, sports analyst and radio presenter based in Dubai, says he did not realise just how much he had missed the weekly routine of watching football. All the time however, the issue of safety was at the back of his mind. Thankfully, there has been no health cares too speak of so far.

“I was delighted football was back, and there was a real sense of relief when Dortmund kicked off against Schalke on Saturday,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it until i saw it. But it meant more to get through the 90 minutes with no issues, to set the blueprint for the world of football.”

Despite the excitement, Al-Duri believes the coming days will go a long way to determining how quickly, and regularly football will return. Even one positive case of coronavirus could throw all the plans into chaos again.

But for now, the outlook looks good.

“I came into the game with a clear mind and an understanding that it would take minutes to get back to match sharpness, recover from games and respect the new rules to keep football on the map,” he said. “As long as nothing is reported Germany are one up. The ultimate goal, for me and many others, is to watch the Premier League. Even from home it would help with mental health, have something to banter about and celebrate the sport we love.”

Football may have cautiously returned at the weekend, but it seems that fans, in lockdown at home, are quickly readjusting to the new normal. Already thoughts are turning to the big prizes.

“Many people will tell you football is nothing without fans, that something seems off, that it feels weird now,” Abdulrazzaq concluded. “But honestly I am too excited to be bothered as I can’t wait for Liverpool to be crowned deserving champions of England.”

Is this the greatest racehorse ever?

Updated 05 June 2020

Is this the greatest racehorse ever?

  • Pinatubo, latest product of the Godolphin stable, aims to overtake Frankel as the British Classics get underway

LONDON: There is, understandably, great excitement in the world of horse-racing ahead of Saturday’s Qipco 2000 Guineas race at Newmarket, the first of the British season’s Classics to be run since the coronavirus ban on the sport was lifted in England on June 1.

The Classics are a series of five flat races, first run between 1776 and 1809, which are open only to three-year-old thoroughbreds and together are regarded as the ultimate test of any generation of horses.

The start of the Classics season is the first opportunity for horse race owners, trainers, pundits and fans to see how last year’s debuting two-year-olds have come on over the winter — and to wonder which might have the potential to go down in racing history.

This year, however, even allowing for the hype, rumor and speculation that swirls constantly around the sport of kings — and notwithstanding the fact that under social-distancing rules the 2,000 Guineas will be held behind closed doors — the excitement is at fever pitch.

Typically, the first Classic of any season is a star-studded affair, and the 15 runners assembled for Saturday’s 2,000 Guineas and looking for a share of the £500,000 purse make this year no exception.

But when the field comes under starter’s orders at 3:35 p.m. on Saturday (6:35 p.m. Dubai time) all eyes will be on a smaller-than-usual horse owned and bred by Godolphin, the racing stables founded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, vice-president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.

After one of the most successful juvenile seasons in horse-racing history, Pinatubo will be carrying the weight of great expectations over Newmarket’s Rowley Mile racecourse — because the word in the industry is that the deceptively laid-back bay colt could prove to be the greatest racehorse the world has ever seen.

That, clearly, would be a tall order, but Pinatubo has a great deal going for him. 

For a start, his father was Shamardal, another successful horse trained by Godolphin. As a two-year-old in 2004, Shamardal won all three of the flat races he entered and was voted Cartier Champion Two-year-old Colt by British racing journalists and readers of the Daily Telegraph and the Racing Post.

The following year Shamardal came home first in three of four races. His racing career was ended by an injury in training but he went on to become a successful stud, siring a string of winners — including Pinatubo in 2017.

In 2019 Pinatubo would follow in his father’s hoof prints, also winning the Cartier Champion two-year-old Colt award, but his remarkable first season left Shamardal’s in the shade.

It began quietly enough, with what Sporting Life described as “a stylish but under-the-radar winning debut” on May 10, 2019, in the Myracing.com Free Tips Every Day Novice Stakes at Wolverhampton. Ten other promising two-year-olds trailed in Pinatubo’s wake, including second-placed Platinum Star, another Godolphin-trained horse, beaten by over three lengths.

Heads first began to turn on May 31 when Pinatubo recorded his second win, in the Investec Woodcote EBF Stakes at Epsom. But it was only after a “crunching, authoritative” victory in the Chesham Stakes at Royal Ascot on Jun. 22, at which he broke the two-year-old course record, that Sporting Life declared it was “finally starting to take Pinatubo seriously”.

By the end of the 2019 season, the entire racing world would be taking Pinatubo very seriously indeed.

Three more impressive victories followed, bringing the two-year-old’s record to a rarely achieved six for six — in the Qatar Vintage Stakes at Goodwood on July 30, the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes at the Curragh, Ireland, on Sept. 15 and the Darley Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket on Oct. 12.

That last victory, in testing conditions, was saluted by Sheikh Mohammed himself.

“When you win like that and show a lot of courage, it makes you very pleased and happy,” he said. “Every year, one horse is your favourite, and Pinatubo is the favourite this year.”

But it was Pinatubo’s outing at the Curragh, a fittingly explosive performance for a horse named after an active volcano in the Philippines, that had really set his season on a pedestal.

“Wow!” declared Racing Post after he won by an astonishing nine lengths. This, the paper proclaimed, was “a scintillating performance up there with the most exalted and jaw-dropping juvenile demolitions” of an impressive field.

“He might not be the biggest,” as Sporting Life later noted, “but Pinatubo proved last summer that he has the heart of a lion to match his immense talent, and his breeding, at least, offers real optimism that he might be even better over a mile in the 2000 Guineas.”

The Curragh victory was the deciding factor in the horse’s official recognition as the best juvenile in Europe for a quarter of a century with the publication in January this year of the 2019 European two-year-old classifications, the handicap system designed, in theory, to put all horses on a level playing field. 

“Pinatubo looked a potentially outstanding two-year-old when thrashing a competitive field in the Vintage Stakes and his next performance in the National Stakes was breathtaking — the kind you rarely see in top company,” the British Horseracing Authority’s lead two-year-old handicapper Graeme Smith commented at the time.

This, he added, was “one of the great two-year-old performances, and the best by any two-year-old in the last 25 years.”

Not bad for a horse who, according to trainer Charlie Appleby, “just doesn’t do anything in the mornings … we only ever see the best of him when he turns up at the track.” For William Buick, the Godolphin jockey who rode Pinatubo to victory last year at the Curragh and the Dewhurst Stakes, and who will be in the saddle again at Newmarket his Saturday, “he’s a very relaxed individual, a very laid back horse.”  

Pinatubo’s end-of-season handicap rating was set by the BHA at 128lbs — the highest since the 130 awarded to a two-year-old called Celtic Swing in 1994. 

And therein lies a cautionary tale, recalled by many trainers, horse-owners and pundits who argue that horses that shine as two-year-olds are frequently overtaken later by contemporaries that are slower to develop. 

That, certainly, was the fate of Celtic Swing. His rating of 130 after winning all three of his starts as a two-year-old in 1994, including one by a record 12 lengths, stuck him with the expectation that he, too, could be the world’s greatest racehorse.

Like Pinatubo, Celtic Swing was also awarded the Cartier prize as Europe’s top two-year-old colt at the end of his first season.

And then it all went wrong.

Celtic Swing won his first race as a three-year-old in 1995. But on May 6, confounding media predictions that he would win the 2000 Guineas by eight lengths or more, he was beaten to the post by Pennekemp, a French-trained horse.

Just one more win followed, at Chantilly. But in the Irish Derby at the Curragh in July 1995 Celtic Swing, the 5-4 favorite, finished a disappointing eighth in a field of 13. Injured in the process, it would be his last race.

However, it isn’t the ghost of Celtic Swing that is now haunting Pinatubo. Comparisons are now being drawn with the legendary horse Frankel, which at the same age had been rated at 126 — 2 less than Pinatubo.

Frankel ran in and won only four races in his two-year-old season in 2010, compared with Pinatubo’s six. But Frankel just got better and better. Over the course of his three-year racing career he was never beaten, winning all 14 races in which he was entered.

He ended his career in 2012 with a final rating of 140 — just one below the all-time best, awarded in 1986 — and the following year the official handicappers downgraded his rival Dancing Brave’s rating by three pounds, leaving Frankel officially the best racehorse in the recent history of flat racing.

This is the high hurdle that Pinatubo will have to clear if he is to take Frankel’s crown — and the first test of his ability to do so comes on Saturday. The 2,000 Guineas is the race in which Frankel first set out his stall as a three-year-old, demolishing the field in April 2011 after going 10 lengths clear by the halfway mark.

Ahead of Godolphin’s bright new hope is a blizzard of “ifs”. If Pinatubo can equal Frankel’s 2,000 Guineas victory, if he can stay the course over the next three years to match and better Frankel’s unbeaten 14-race record, and if he can avoid injury in the process, then he will indeed be the greatest racehorse the world has ever seen.

Until then, he remains only a highly promising newcomer with much to prove — but one who will nevertheless be watched on television with great interest by racing enthusiasts around the world on Saturday.