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Before the FIFA presidential election, we ask whether Sepp Blatter is a monster or misunderstood
Sepp Blatter

“You may think you know what FIFA is, what it does... A faceless machine, printing money at the expense of the beautiful game with me pulling the strings and laughing all the way to the bank. It’s not exactly that.” 

Sepp Blatter is not renowned for choosing his words carefully. But the middle part of that quote, from a speech at the Oxford Union in 2013, neatly captures the sentiment of many towards his presidency of FIFA.

Next Friday at the FIFA Congress meeting, the 79-year-old will stand for another four-year term at the helm of football’s international governing body. Under his tenure, FIFA has been marred by controversy and dogged by allegations of corruption – most recently around the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Blatter has scattered his reign with ham-fisted moments, such as the pronouncement that female footballers should wear tighter shorts, and unpopular rule changes, such as automatic bookings for taking off your shirt.

Blatter joined FIFA in 1975, when it had just 12 employees. By 1998 he was its president, defeating UEFA supremo Lennart Johansson in an election that soon found itself party to allegations of corruption; but, while tales of envelopes of cash being passed under hotel doors at the FIFA congress in Paris did the rounds, Blatter and his camp denied all knowledge of any vote-buying – and a 1999 book by the investigative journalist David Yallop, How They Stole The Game, never directly claimed Blatter knew of or had any part in the alleged corruption.   

Claims made in an ESPN E60 documentary shown this month suggested Blatter thinks it would be unwise to set foot in the United States because of an ongoing FBI investigation. But a FIFA spokeswoman dismissed this as “absolutely untrue” and the man himself says he plans to visit next year. “I know in the US there is an investigation against former people who have been in my government,” he said. “There is nothing against me.” 

In the UK, however, Blatter is a hate figure. The Sun ran a front page likening him to Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, painting a picture of a despot clinging to power. A poll of more than 11,000 football fans across Europe by campaign group #NewFIFANow found that only 0.4 per cent want him to win next week’s election – although 84.9 per cent think he will. 

And then there is the issue of transparency. In July 2012, an ethics committee led by former US attorney Michael Garcia was asked to produce a report into allegations of corruption in world football. FIFA declined to publish the report, instead releasing only a summary that Garcia insists does not reflect its contents. He resigned in protest.

Passionate propaganda

Blatter remains unmoved, however, and determined to stay in charge. Perhaps nothing gives a greater insight into how he sees his own role in football than United Passions, an extraordinary film released last year. 

Starring Gerard Depardieu as World Cup founder Jules Rimet, Sam Neill as former FIFA president Joao Havelange, and Tim Roth as Blatter, it was almost wholly funded by a £16m grant from FIFA. 

It is, to many, an astonishing piece of propaganda, portraying Blatter only as hero. He argues on the side of human rights when the 1978 World Cup is held under a dictatorship in Argentina. He delivers on promises to the African delegations when Havelange is found wanting. And it is Blatter who shouts down the other members of FIFA and calls for more transparency. 

“I am the president now,” bellows a portly Roth in an accent that sounds like he came up with it in the car on the way to the shoot.

Stand and deliver

But maybe this version of events is not quite so ridiculous. Outside Europe, Blatter is not seen as the source of football’s ills. 

“He has spread football far beyond the European centre, tapping into the unhappiness in the rest of the world and the perceived arrogance of the European countries,” says football journalist James Montague. “That’s how football was run until Havelange came in, in the 1970s. The power and money and control was in Europe, which dished out what it felt the rest of the world deserved.”

Montague travelled across the globe following World Cup qualification for his book Thirty-One Nil, and has seen first-hand the benefits Blatter’s reign has brought to FIFA’s smaller members. 

“Under his watch there has been a huge increase in the money generated by FIFA, largely through television, and that has been passed down to the federations,” he explains. “They have massively invested in grassroots football, in facilities. Almost everywhere I went, whether Haiti or American Samoa or Yemen, you see fantastic next-generation all-weather pitches. I’ve just been to Bhutan and they had three all-weather pitches built from money given to them by FIFA.”

Outside Britain, Germany and Switzerland, says Montague, Blatter is perceived differently: “He is not seen as the evil emperor, but as a guy who has delivered on his promise and delivered real, tangible visible things for football in that country.” 

Crucially, the FIFA Congress – comprised of representatives of all 209 member associations that will choose from the four presidential candidates (see below) – is one member, one vote. So appeasing the smaller nations is also a shrewd political move.

Four more years

FIFA’s problem is not just bad PR – there are serious issues at the heart of the organisation. 

“There has to be an understanding that you can’t run FIFA like it’s a 1970s British golf club,” says Montague. “There is too much at stake. It’s too important to people and there’s too much money involved. You have to have transparency – absolute transparency.”

The other presidential candidates, in particular Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, have made greater transparency a key pillar of their platforms. When Blatter was asked to make his case for re-election, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said: “My manifesto is the work that I have done.”

Despite that, Montague thinks there is hope for a better FIFA, even if Blatter does serve another term. “The final term of a presidency is about legacy,” he says. “And he won’t want to be remembered for the mess over 2010 and the World Cup nominations over Qatar and Russia, or for the secrecy. So I think we might see a FIFA presidency that’s more in line with what Western Europe expects.”

There’s a scene in United Passions that sees Blatter visiting Angola in 1979, in the company of Horst Dassler, then president of adidas. The pair pace around the outskirts of a lush football pitch, where children in sparkling new adidas boots and socks play an organised game. The half-time whistle blows, and the children head for the touchline, where two crates of Coca-Cola are waiting for them.

It encapsulates Blatter’s view of how he has been able to take football to new territories and fund facilities in the developing world, while simultaneously giving the sponsors what they want. That’s why, despite the voices of protest from football’s first world, there are unlikely to be any surprises at this election.

He has left Sky and started his own team. Now Sir Bradley Wiggins is returning to London for a crack at the hour record
Sir Bradley Wiggins

“I started racing on the Eastway site – the old Lee Valley cycle circuit.Where the track is now used to be the old finish straight.”

Sir Bradley Wiggins is explaining his choice of the velodrome in Stratford for his Hour Record appointment. The 6,000-seat arena was built on the east London circuit demolished to make way for the Olympic Park. It will be something of a homecoming for the the Kilburn-raised 35-year-old. 

“I’ve never ridden on it – it will be nice to do one before I retire for good,” says Wiggins, among whose palmares are the Tour de France, seven World Championship victories on track and road, and four Olympic golds – including one for the road time trial at the 2012 Games for which the aforementioned velodrome was built. He has also, this year, launched his eponymous road cycling team. And he has the track team pursuit at Rio 2016 to work towards before he calls it a day. Given all that, why attempt the Hour Record at all?  

“I think I’m obliged to do it for the good of the sport, in some ways,” Wiggins explains. “The record has been re-established and people like Jens Voigt have had a crack at it. So aside from thinking I can break it anyway, and it’s achievable, as world champion, Olympic champion, all these people look to you and say: ‘You need to do this for the sport.’

“Personally, I feel like I can not only break it, but put it up there with some of the greats. Beyond Miguel Indurain’s [53.040km]; up there with Tony Rominger’s [55.291km]. And so continue this versatility in terms of having done Paris-Roubaix, winner of the Tour, world champion, madison, track team pursuit, Hour Record holder. It’s another string to the bow.” 

Because of the advanced nature of the bikes they used, both Indurain’s and Rominger’s records were downgraded by the UCI – cycling’s governing body – to ‘best human effort’. Seven attempts have been made since the UCI changed the rules last May to permit the use of modern track pursuit bikes. Four have been successful: Voigt, Matthias Brändle, Rohan Dennis and Britain’s Alex Dowsett, whose unified record stands at 52.937km. Wiggins believes he can smash it.

“If I do 55km on the day, I think that’d be a good one.” 

Wiggins has a target in mind. “I wouldn’t have thought I’d go much quicker than that,” he explains. That figure is based on the numbers he has hit in 16-minute blocks in training. He posted data from his first week back on the boards on his Instagram feed in April. 

“I just thought I’d let people know what I’m doing,” says Wiggins. “Because I’m unemployed now. So I’m my own man. I’ve not got Team Sky putting posts up every day, so I just thought I’d let people know what I’m up to so people aren’t sat there thinking: ‘Is he actually training for this thing, or…?’” 

Eddie Merckx, the most successful rider in the history of the sport, described the Hour as the hardest thing he has ever done on a bike. Prior to our interview, Wiggins had spoken about his expectations of his own attempt and how it will be like “holding on for grim death”. That said, he tells us he can’t imagine it being any different to what he has experienced in the past: 

“Whether that’s the last 10km of the London Olympic time trial; the last 10km of the worlds last year; hanging on with 5km to go up the Tourmalet in 2009 in the Tour. Cycling is what it is. In its purest form, it’s a case of suffering at the hardest moments. And the Hour Record will be no different. And I actually really enjoy that part of it. That’s where you make the difference. That’s what makes you a great athlete, or someone who got close to the record. 

“Because if it was a 45-minute record, a lot more people would be challenging it. But it’s an hour. And the last 15 minutes is what makes you great. A lot of people can match you for half an hour, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 50 minutes. But it’s the difference. Last year at the worlds, I was leading Tony Martin by nine seconds going into the last 10km. And I beat him by 32 seconds in the end [Wiggins actually won by 26.23 seconds on a hilly 47.1km course in Spain]. So it’s the difference between what makes you good and what makes you great. And that’s what the hour record is all about.”

Psychologically, Wiggins will approach his hour attempt as five lots of 12 minutes. 

“First 12 minutes, it should feel easy,” he says. “You start, you’re fresh, the crowd’s going and you’ve just got to keep the line... but obviously you have 50-odd minutes to go. The last 12 minutes are horrible. That’s the 14th round – Thrilla in Manila stuff. So you forget about that, because that will just happen. When you get to that stage, you’re just putting your hand in the fire for as long as you can.”

The Hour will suit Wiggins’ style: his greatest victories with Sky were built on his ability – primarily as a time trial specialist – to sit in and suffer longer and harder than most. 

“Sky was an incredibly intense period – five years.” 

We ask Wiggins what he will miss about being part of Britain’s most successful cycling team. 

“Not a lot really, to be honest,” is his reply. “It was all about specific goals, winning races. I had the best people around me, I benefited from that system of ‘we want to be the best’. The best coaches, the best equipment; they put the best people around you... I had all my road success there. I won everything with them. And I had the backing of them throughout those years. And it will continue to be successful. And I’m sure they will win many more Tours de France. 

“[But] it was very business-like. And perhaps not the most enjoyable period in my life, but at the same time it was the most successful period. So, yeah, it’s not a case of: ‘We had a great time and it was a laugh every minute.’ There were some pretty stressful, pressured moments. A lot of expectation as well, especially in those Tours. It was a successful period – that’s how I’d sum it up.” 

Wiggins describes being at Sky as like playing for the best football club in the world and being expected to score every week.

“A bit like being Gareth Bale,” he laughs. “And if you’re not able to, someone else will. I wouldn’t say it was cut-throat in a horrible way, but that’s the reality. It’s about winning races, and it’s a 12-month cycle. And the minute you finish one season you’re planning for the next. Unless you can keep up with that, and not have any other distraction in your life, then it soon falls away... I’m just glad I had my time and I took it when it was there.”

Wiggins repeats that he won’t miss the intensity of Sky. “And the atmosphere that creates among everyone,” he explains. “New people come in every year and want that success, and if you’re not willing to stay up there, then you are soon thrust to one side.” 

Wiggins has, since we spoke, raced against his former colleagues for his own team at the first Tour de Yorkshire. We suggest it will be a strange feeling when he faces Sky on the road. 

“Yeah, it probably will be,” he says. “I feel quite institutionalised at Sky. In every way. I find myself checking my phone now and again to see if I’ve had a shitty text message saying: ‘Why don’t you pick up?’ I’ve been in that regime and that system for so long that it will take a while. I guess as every day goes by I realise more and more now that, yeah, you are free. [Laughs] The handcuffs are off. So I have my own team now, and these youngsters to inspire. And they’re looking to me now. And it’s kind of nice. It’s a nice feeling. 

“I had a big clear out last week, getting rid of all my Sky stuff. Because I’ve got five years of it accumulated. So I find myself going out for bike rides, and putting on a pair of gloves: ‘Oh, they’re Sky, I can’t wear them again.’ Things like that, I have taken for granted every day. I keep coming across little pockets of kit and giving it to the milkman or giving it to the bloke who cleans the windows: ‘Take that, would you?’ Or: ‘You don’t want a helmet, do you?’ It’s just funny.”

“This team is about engaging people and inspiring people.” 

Wiggins tells us his new squad does not operate, in the same way that many historically have, with sponsorship dependent on results or getting a name out there. 

“We’re not really a results-based team,” he says. “This team is about engaging people and inspiring people. It’s more of a brand team really – with a goal, to Rio, and the team facilitating a programme around that.” 

It also exists, Wiggins explains, with the aim of developing young British talent:

“If they aren’t ready for the ProTour or the Team Skys of this world, then hopefully there’s a home for those riders without them having to go to America or France or Italy and face the pressures that all these other people have had to go and do. Or feel homesick, or feel pressurised into doing things they shouldn’t be doing, or whatever. There’s a home for them here, where we can develop them and take them to Europe and race as a team, and then come back to Britain. And there’s an educational process around that in the anti-doping world, teaching them life skills as well. Because some of these kids have never lived away from home. So, washing their bikes, maintaining their bikes.” 

“It’s not this elite team that people don’t feel they can associate with.” 

Wiggins’ hope is that his team becomes neither a squad of superstars, nor a conveyor belt of success. 

“It’s not always about the success,” he says. “It’s broader than that. Because I think that’s really important in this day and age. There’s not many sports, if any, where you can go along and kick a ball around a park with Steven Gerrard. [But] you can come and ride with us when we go out training in Yorkshire the day before the race. I think that inclusiveness is what the sport needs now.” 

Wiggins says he will be doing “quite a bit” with his road side until the track season begins in the winter, when his schedule will become more GB-dominated. He will compete in the Isle of Wight, at the Tour of Britain and the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic. But he will, he assures us, also find time to rest: 

“After the Hour attempt I’ll probably have a bit of a break. For the first time in 15 years I’ll have a family holiday in July with the kids when they break up from school, rather than Dad going off to France for a month. I’ll come back from there, and it’s pretty much full-on from the end of July to the Olympic Games.” 

Wiggins will race on the track through the winter, with the European Championships in Switzerland in October, and the World Championships in London next March. The Olympic Games next summer will come around very quickly. 

He still puts the London Olympic time trial in his top three road career achievements, alongside the last weekend of that year’s Tour. 

“Winning the [penultimate stage] time trial in Chartres,” Wiggins recalls. “Leading Cav [Mark Cavendish] out on the Champs-Elysees and winning the Tour – that weekend. And probably Paris-Roubaix last year. Being in the final with all my peers, the people I look up to. And in their world, as it felt like.” 

It didn’t quite happen for him at Roubaix this year, where he finished 18th. 

“Yeah… that’s just the way the race is. It’s such a lottery, you know.”

No regrets, then? No giving it one last try? 

“No. There’s always that. But that’s the danger. I mean, look at Steven Gerrard: one year too many. And I love him to bits. I was happy to be in the final in Roubaix. I won a race the week before as world champion, and I sort of feel like I’ve gone out at the top. 

“There’s always the temptation: ‘Why don’t you go back to America this year and try and win the worlds again?’ But you’ve got to stop some time, and I always wanted to go out on top. I don’t want to be like some punch-drunk fighter who keeps coming back for more – one last hurrah. I’ve been very lucky, and I’m glad. It’s time to move on to other things.”

“Chris Boardman used to say to me: ‘It’s not life and death. No one is holding a gun to your head.” 

We have asked Wiggins an old Sport favourite: what’s the best advice he has been given in his career?

“But I still come back to that thing that James Cracknell said to me about rowing the Atlantic. The thing he learned from that was: no matter how hard something is, there’s an end point. It always has to end. Whatever it is. And it might last 30 years, but it will end. 

“I’ve held that – with everything in my life, actually. If I think times are tough, well – it will end. The Hour Record? It’s only an hour, and it’s done. Tour de France? Three weeks, and it’ll be done. So there’s always an end point. It’s a natural thing.” 

Watch Sir Bradley Wiggins attempt to break the world hour record at the Lee Valley VeloPark on Sunday June 7, live on Sky Sports

Double Commonwealth gold-winning triathlete Jodie Stimpson tells Sport about returning from injury, the road to Rio and her eye for a cartoon
Jodie Stimpson

Britain’s Jodie Stimpson is impatient for the ITU World Triathlon Series to return to London’s Hyde Park at the end of this month.

“I’m definitely a racer,” she tells Sport. “After all the training you do, the racing’s the good bit. And I miss the racing and pushing myself to that limit – I’m looking forward to getting back out there.”

An Achilles injury has kept the 26-year-old out of action since competing in Abu Dhabi in March. It has meant her long-term goal of being world number one has taken a back seat during a season she came into with big confidence after winning gold in both the team relay and individual events at last summer’s Commonwealth Games.

“My Achilles is definitely an improvement on what it has been in the past few weeks,” Stimpson explains. “I’m very happy to say I’m running. This is the first serious injury I’ve had in my career, so it’s been challenging to say the least. Sitting out of competition this past couple of months has been horrendous. Especially watching New Zealand and Cape Town, where I’ve won previously. It’s so hard.”

Stimpson also missed April’s ITU Gold Coast event, and will not compete in Yokohama in Japan this weekend. She will instead continue on her road to Rio 2016 at the Vitality World Triathlon London on May 31.

What are you most looking forward to about racing in Hyde Park?
“It’s a home race. And it’s brilliant to race in London. You don’t get a buzz quite like you do when you’re racing in London. That feeling of, in every bit of the course, everybody knows your name and everybody cheers you. You’re looking and there’s just GB colours everywhere.”

It might be similar to Glasgow, in that respect. What are your memories of your two gold medals last summer?
“My main memory is running down the blue carpet, across that finish line, and I looked across at the grandstand and I just saw my mum and dad. And it was like: ‘Oh my god, has that just happened?’ It was amazing. And it was Glasgow, but it was a home race. I had so many friends, family, supporters, people who have helped me get that title. It was an amazing experience. I was more nervous for the relay than I was the individual race, though.”

Why so?
“Because in the individual, if you have a bad one you let yourself down. Whereas if you have a bad run in the relay, you let Alistair [Brownlee], Jonny [Brownlee] and Vicky [Holland, who won Commonwealth bronze and the Cape Town event in this season’s ITU World Triathlon Series] down. I’ve been in a team where we were the hot favourites before – it was me, Non Stanford, Alastair and Jonny [going for a third consecutive title for Great Britain, at the ITU Team Triathlon Mixed Relay World Championships in Hamburg, in 2013]. And Non crashed. We were hot favourites going into it, but it’s not necessarily the favourites who always win.”

What’s it like racing with the Brownlee brothers? We imagine they can be quite demanding.
[Laughs] “You could say that, yeah. Beforehand, Alistair said: ‘Just don’t take any risks, and we’ll be alright. Don’t fall off your bike, and we’ll be alright.’ But there is an added pressure with the Brownlee brothers in the team.”

Does having them on your side also give you a confidence boost?
“It does, but they’re quite handy at getting time penalties at the moment, too. Alistair was close to getting one in Glasgow. They do push the limits.”

Does the prospect of testing yourself in a race again excite you?
“It does. They’re the training sessions that I love. The ones where the coach goes: ‘Okay, let’s see what you’ve got.’ And he allows me to push myself to that limit. That’s the race. When you put yourself in that race scenario, there’s no other feeling like it. I love it. That’s what I live for.”

Sitting out with an Achilles injury must have been frustrating?
“I’ve been horrendous to live with. I’ve been an absolute nightmare. With Cape Town, the previous one I missed, I did a run session before it, so at least I’d done something. The other races I’ve had to go and do something straight after it. With New Zealand, I had an open-water swim race. It’s hard. It’s really hard to watch the races that you want to go and do. Because you question yourself as well: ‘What am I going to be like when I get back in there?’ Because you don’t want to miss these things. You find that you get better as the races go on [over the course of a season]. So in that way it gives you a bit of fear as well. But it’s exciting, because you just want to get back racing.”

Have you appreciated the rest?
“I haven’t rested. I’ve picked up the bike and the swim. So not running has given me an opportunity to push on with the swim and the bike. Running is really not very good for your swimming. For me, when I’ve done a run session, my swimming is terrible. So, because I have not been running, it has made my swimming stronger. So I’ve just got to maintain that when my running is in full flow.”

What are your goals for the rest of the season?
“My main goal is to qualify for Rio. So the main two races of the year are the Rio test event on August 2, and Chicago – the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final – in September. It’s all guns blazing for those two. If I podium in both, my name is on the start list for Rio. If I do well in one and not the other, I could still be selected – but it’s not a guaranteed qualification.”

You have been quite vocal about not wanting to ride with domestiques if you do qualify for Rio.
“Triathlon is an individual sport. And I believe that at the Olympics it should be the best triathletes – the best swim-bike-runner – on that day. Not the best swimmer who’s had help on the bike and then run the fastest. It’s the Olympic Games triathlon. It’s not a swimming race. It’s not a bike race. It’s not a running race. It’s all of them.”

The best triathletes right now are the Americans, according to the Columbia Threadneedle rankings. They have four of the top five spots.
“The GB girls don’t really like that. It’s great to see the American girls up there – they’re all great athletes, great people. But we all want to beat them. And I want to beat them. How can you not want to? But the GB girls have been out injured, and we’re excited to get back on the start line as individuals. And as a Great Britain team as well. Not only to race the American girls, but to race each other. It’s just their time at the minute. But the GB girls will come back.”

We hope so. Can any of the American girls do the worm as well as you can?
[Laughs] “I think it’s a bit of a fluke, actually. Someone showed it me, and I thought: ‘I’ll have a bit of a crack at that.’ I’ve no idea how I do it, really, because a lot of people struggle.”

Do you have any other hidden talents?
“Is my worm not good enough? I can draw cartoons. It’s a bit of a boring one, though. I’m a good drawer.”

Can you draw a cartoon for us now?
“Google a cartoon and I will draw it for you.”

How about Simba from The Lion King?
“Oh god. Give me an easy one.”

What about drawing Peter Griffin from Family Guy?
“Okay… [Stimpson takes Sport’s phone and pen and draws a perfect recreation of Seth MacFarlane’s anti-hero, below]. I do it between training sometimes. It’s what I do with my niece – we do drawings. This is terrible. I’m very sorry. Is this going to be published? Oh no! Can I do it again?”

Columbia Threadneedle Investments is the global financial services partner of the ITU World Triathlon Series and proud sponsor of the official rankings. Follow @CTinvest_tri and #CT_Rankings to join the conversation

Cesc Fabregas on joining forces with Jose Mourinho and starting his Chelsea career with a Premier League title
Cesc Fabregas

“Football is unexpected,” said Cesc Fabregas as he ponders to his move from Barcelona to Chelsea last summer. 

For most of his football life, Fabregas and his new manager Jose Mourinho had been rivals. The Spaniard was in his formative years when Mourinho was transforming Chelsea from a team that the midfielder’s former side Arsenal had become accustomed to beating into one that always seemed to be one step ahead of the north Londoners. And when Fabregas fulfilled his dream of returning to his boyhood club Barcelona in 2011, he found Mourinho at the helm of a record-breaking Real Madrid side that finished nine points ahead of the Catalans in his first season back in Spain. 

Fabregas is now, however, an integral part of the Mourinho winning machine. We meet the 28-year-old less than a week after he won the Premier League title with Chelsea – an achievement that eluded him throughout his eight years at Arsenal. “It’s been a very good year,” he grins. “We won two trophies (the Blues also won the Capital One Cup in March) and hopefully it’s just the beginning of something very good for this club. That’s what you hope, that’s what you want and that’s what you fight for.” 

He has enjoyed four days off on Mourinho’s instruction. But today Fabregas goes back to work, with the team set to meet at Chelsea’s training ground in a few hours’ time to prepare for their first match as league champions. Until then, and with a large sushi order on the way to ensure he arrives at Cobham fully fuelled, Fabregas is ours to ask how an unexpected link- up with a former foe turned into one of the season’s biggest success stories. 

Was there a moment or match during the season when you first realised this was a title-winning team? 
“Basically, in all the big games. Almost every three days we were competing in the Champions League, Capital One Cup or Premier League. And, up until now, we’ve lost only three games all season. That’s remarkable, I’d say, because we’ve played more than 50 games for sure [Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool last weekend was their 52nd game of the season]. That’s not an easy thing to do, considering the high level football is at these days. I knew from the beginning that we had a good squad and all the ingredients to have a good season, but you still have to perform to make that happen. We’ve been very consistent throughout the whole season. And, at the end, it’s the most consistent teams that get silverware.”

Was the transition from playing in Spain to returning to the Premier League as straightforward as many presumed it would be for you? 
“There is always something that you have to adjust to when you go to a new club, as much as it is the same league that I played in for eight years at Arsenal. When you change clubs, though, there are new people, new tactics, a new manager, new everything. So you have to adapt and adjust to what the team wants from you. But apart from that, I have always just tried to play my game, be natural and be efficient.”

Six assists in your first four Premier League games of the season suggest it didn’t take you too long to adapt.
“I just tried to play my football, really. I’ve been lucky enough that the manager has believed in me and that he allows me to play the way I feel – this is always important. Of course he asks me to do specific things on the pitch. But, apart from that – and especially when we have the ball – I can be free and I can play how I think the game needs to be played. That is always important for me.”

Did you come to Chelsea with any expectations of what it would be like to work with Mourinho, given how often you’ve played against him in your career?
“I had my thoughts, but until you work with the person who you expect things from, or who you don’t really know about, then you are always curious to see how things will really be. And so far, so good. I’m learning a lot. He’s making me feel things that I hadn’t felt for a while. And I feel very important, which is vital.”

Has there been anything about his management style that surprised you?
“No, I know that he really fights for his players; he defends his players to the end. He’s very demanding. He wants the best out of you every single day, and that’s what I want: a manager who makes you feel at the top of your game. With him you also know that you have to be at the top of your game, otherwise you don’t play. This is good for the whole squad because you know that if you are competing well, you will have your chance. It’s a very fair approach. The motivation he has given to the team all season is not easy. Sometimes when you win too much or when you lose, it can either give you too much confidence or not enough. But he always maintains the right balance. And he always wants to win.”

From what you’ve seen at Chelsea and other teams you’ve played for, how much does the attitude of the players on the pitch reflect the manager’s approach?
“I’ve always said that the manager makes a big difference. There are so many examples, like at Atletico Madrid with [Diego] Simeone. Compare how they were before him with how they are now. And with Mourinho it is the same thing. When he went to Real Madrid, they won the league with 100 points. Now in England he comes back and wins the Premier League after Chelsea went five years without winning it. So for me, a manager is very important, because if a player doesn’t believe in his manager then I know from experience that it’s not going to work as well. It is a difficult job because you have to make your players believe in what you say, in what you do and in how you want to play. If your players don’t believe, then you can try to do as much as you want – [but] there will never be a connection. I think he [Mourinho] is vital. He is very good at this.”

Chelsea started the season in sensational form, but slowed somewhat as the season progressed. Are there lessons you can take from this year to ensure that early form is maintained next season? 
“You don’t necessarily need to always play the way we did at the beginning to win things. We’ve shown that. If you look at it, the only time when you can say that we didn’t perform as well as we could have was during the second half of the game against Paris Saint-Germain when we went out of the Champions League. The first leg in Paris, I think we played a solid game. A draw was a good result for us. But it’s true that in the second half of the second leg, when PSG had 10 men [after Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sent off on 31 minutes], we maybe should have approached the game in a different way. We should have played better than we did. Apart from that, you can mention the result against Bradford [Chelsea lost 4-2 at home to the Bantams in the fourth round of the FA Cup], when a lot of players were rested and others were on the bench. There was a lot of rotation for that game, so I don’t take that result as anything big because I know these kinds of things can happen – especially in English football.”

So you don’t agree that Chelsea were grinding out results more as the season went on?  
“In the league we’ve won nearly all our games, and that’s in the second half of the season as well. Whether we have done that by playing better or worse, I don’t know. But it was done by playing for the result that we wanted, which was to win. And that’s what we did. Maybe we didn’t play as fluently as before or with the same freedom, but we got results. So I get surprised when people say that we didn’t play as well as in the first half of the season, because when you win the league with the amount of points and wins that we have got, and having lost only two games, it’s a bit too much [smiles].”

Members of the Arsenal side that went through the 2003-04 season unbeaten have said they went into every game with an unshakeable belief. Has there been a similar feeling around Chelsea this season?
“To be honest, the feeling I had was that we could beat anyone. That’s how I felt before going into games. We lost games against Tottenham and Newcastle, but they are two difficult places to go during the season. And the Spurs game came during the Christmas period when everything is a little bit crazy, because there are too many games and the team has to be rotated – so it can happen. We went out of the Champions League without losing a single game. So it has been a good season, really, and the confidence of the team has been very high.”

Was that Champions League exit the toughest point of the season for you?
“Yes, 100 per cent. We were very disappointed to go out, but these things can happen. And it’s PSG – they have also invested a lot in the team and have great players. But it happened and it’s the only thing that I have negative in my mind for this season.”

What was it like for you going back to the Emirates as a Chelsea player?  Were you surprised at the booing from some sections of the crowd?
“There was some at the beginning, but at the end of the game when I came off it was very nice. So that’s what I take from it. I just tried to take it as a normal day and play my game. It is difficult because obviously I know that I played there for many years. I know the pitch and the memories do come back to you, but you have to be professional and get the three points for your team. Well, that’s what I hoped for. As it turned out, the [0-0] draw was a very good result for us.”

Do you think the Premier League has changed at all in the years between you leaving Arsenal and joining Chelsea?
“Yes, I think the league is improving. I think it’s tactically much better. It is growing up. At places like QPR, Hull, Leicester and Burnley we won all our games but I think it was the individual quality that always made the difference. That means that collectively, the teams in England are tactically very strong. They defend better, there are not so many spaces in the middle of the park and they know how to press. That’s why every year it’s more difficult to get results.”

What about personally? Are you a different player compared to the one who left England for Spain in 2011?
“In Spain I learned a lot, especially tactically. That Barcelona team was a very experienced one. They won many trophies, so to go there you had to be at your best. I learned a lot from all the players there. I also feel more mature now, having played in England before and then in Spain. I have played for such big clubs with great players and in so many big tournaments. I feel grateful for that because I have matured a lot and it shows on the pitch. I can feel it.”

When you’re playing alongside someone like Lionel Messi, like you did at Barcelona, do you try and take in everything you can from him?
“I absorbed a lot from him. But obviously to reach Messi’s level is impossible because he is one of a kind. But I soaked up everything I could. Technically and tactically, I have learned a lot and I’m very proud of that.”

Cesc Fabregas wears the new PUMA evoPOWER Dragon boot to bring even more power and accuracy to his game

Heptathlete Morgan Lake is already one of the best young athletes in the world. But she still has lots to learn
Morgan Lake

Like a lot of 17-year-olds, Morgan Lake is thinking about taking a gap year.

She’ll do a bit of travelling, and might even end up in the same destination as some of her peers. But the road to Rio – where Lake will compete with the Olympic elite – will be an entirely different experience for one of the UK’s most promising young athletes. She’ll certainly have a better story than that guy who insisted on showing everyone the video of his bungee jump during freshers’ week.  

The latest in a growing line of talented British heptathletes, Lake has been making the transition from youth athletics to senior competition over the past 12 months – and 2015 could be the year she makes her big mark on the senior stage. She was forced to withdraw from this weekend’s Great CityGames in Manchester because of a minor injury, but should be ready to compete alongside Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill at the Hypo-Meeting in Gotzis, Austria at the end of May.

Lake came ninth, behind Johnson-Thompson, at the European Indoor Championships in March, but her points total was better than anything the two more senior aforementioned Brits achieved at her age. Still, she’s admits there’s lots to learn. 

“It is very different,” says Lake, when we speak to her before a training session at her track in Windsor. “I like competing with your role models and people you can learn from. I’ve learnt to take the heptathlon one step at a time, and to just know that you can bring your strengths and weaknesses out of each event rather than taking it all as one.” 

Three’s a crowd

With Ennis-Hill returning to competition, much of the focus is on a rivalry between her and the 22-year-old Johnson-Thompson, who won gold at the European Indoors in Prague in March. Lake is next in line, but does she think she can make it a three-way rivalry over the next few years? 

“Probably not over the next year or so,” comes the reply. “But hopefully, in a few years time, we’ll see how the heptathlon is. Obviously they are two amazing role models and athletes. At the moment I’m just trying to watch what they’re doing.”

Ennis-Hill spoke to Sport last week about juggling athletics with parenthood, and Lake is having to be equally adept at multitasking – 
she is having to mix training and competition with working towards 
her A-levels. 

“It’s quite stressful, because I have a lot of work on and it’s the biggest time in the competition season – so it’s quite hard to balance,” she explains. “It’s quite a way to travel from the track to my school, so it’s a lot of revision in the car.” 

Lake is “still debating” whether to take a gap year next year. She has applied to study psychology at university, which she thinks will help her both in life and her event: “I’ve always been interested. I went to a sports psychology talk and from there I just saw the benefit that psychology could have on society, and especially sport. It is a subject I can apply to my life, as well. In the heptathlon you can have such highs or lows in one event, and you’ve got to be able to brush it off and think about all the good things.”

Gap year planner

So what’s the alternative, if she decides not to go straight into three more years of juggling education and exertion? “Train constantly, have more opportunities to train abroad,” says Lake. “I couldn’t go to warm-weather training this year because of exams, so I think I’ll be able to get some quality work done.” 

There has been an unusual amount of hype around someone so young, but Lake has lived up to it by breaking a host of youth records. At the Sainsbury’s Indoor Championships in March, for example, she not only pushed Johnson-Thompson to a senior high jump record (1.97m), but also set a national junior record of 1.94m. 

The Olympics in Rio next summer is a target, but Lake and her team are in no rush to put her in the spotlight. She made a late decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last year, opting instead for the World Junior Championships in Oregon. She came back with gold medals in both the heptathlon and the high jump. “It was probably quite a good decision,” she reflects. “It’s good having my team around me because they’ve done it before and they know what to do.” 

Lake’s father Eldon, a promising athlete in his youth before his career was halted by injury, is her coach, and a key part of that team. “It’s really good because I’ve got someone I can talk to about anything,” says Lake of her father’s involvement. “He knows a lot about the event, so it’s really useful.” 

Lake laughs when we ask if her parents are conflicted over the training/revision trade-off. “Definitely,” she says. “My dad is training, and my mum work. The battle is kind of tied.” 

Between exams, learning to drive, nagging parents and planning her future, Lake faces the same challenges as many people her age. But a typical teenager? Definitely not. 

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Is football failing ethnic minorities? Sport investigates an ugly side to the supposedly beautiful game
A question of race

“So are you guys Muslims?”


“Oh, that’s alright then.”

Derby County fan Pavinder Samra is recalling snippets of a conversation he has had over a pre-match pint on more than one occasion. A founder member of the Punjabi Rams, a Derby supporters’ group, Samra welcomes questions about the organisation. Even when – as in this case – they are a slap in the face to his ambitions of opening up the football fraternity. 

“The guy who asked that question tweeted the next day: ‘I met the Punjabi Rams at Bournemouth. Really nice lads. Good to get some questions answered,’” recalls Samra. “I think that shows there’s still a lot of education to be done.”

In recent years, it has been tempting to believe that the football world has become one where everyone feels welcome. The occasional incident has made headlines, but has been swiftly squeezed out of the sports news agenda by the more standard fare of transfer rumours and refereeing controversies. 

In February, however, racism in football made headlines in a vivid and disturbing way when a group of Chelsea fans were filmed preventing a black man boarding a Paris train after a Champions League tie. As Paris resident Souleymane S stood on the platform, a chant of “We’re racist, we’re racist and that’s the way we like it” emerged from the carriage. The outrage was widespread. How could such a scene play out in 2015?

The following month, Kick it Out, football’s equality organisation, reported that halfway through the 2014-15 season they had received reports of 184 incidents of abuse – 35 per cent more than at the same stage of the previous season. A total of 64 per cent of those incidents involved alleged racist abuse. For Lord Herman Ouseley, chair of Kick It Out, these numbers indicate that what happened 
in Paris was not an isolated incident.

“Because that incident was filmed, football was suddenly being associated with awful racism, but it was no surprise,” he said. “Major improvements have been made in the past 30 years… but that incident reminded people that such things still go on below the radar. There is a persistent problem… but people are increasingly prepared to report incidents and understand that, if we don’t complain, nothing will happen.”

Caught on camera

The proliferation of camera phones has its downsides, but the ability to capture solid proof has given people more confidence to report acts of wrongdoing. For former Birmingham and Derby defender Michael Johnson, the rise in incidents being reported is just one step in the right direction.

“It’s great that cases are reported, but how many get the punishment the crime deserves?” he asks. “Do we take it seriously, or is it just a slap on the wrist?  

“Football is such a powerful tool. It has to take the lead, and the governing body has to take this seriously. Sometimes they jump all over the incidents Kick It Out are reporting, but never finish what they’ve started.”

Anwar Uddin is a former defender for Bristol Rovers who began his career at West Ham. He now leads the Fans for Diversity campaign for Kick It Out and the Football Supporters’ Federation. He believes a small minority of fans are responsible in the rise of reported incidents:

“At Bradford I helped to create the Bangla Bantams – the UK’s first Bangladeshi supporters group. They love the club and they love football, but most had never been into the stadium to watch a game. Now they’re going to games every week. Occasionally I do think: ‘I hope the away fans don’t sing the songs that have been sung at Bradford in the past, which are extremely offensive.’ Things like: ‘Bradford’s a town full of…’ and the use of the P-word. If I’m encouraging 30 to 40 Asian kids and their parents to go to a game and they hear that, am I doing my job right? Is that the right thing to do?

“It’s important the people responsible for that behaviour are caught and dealt with, and that we don’t let that minority or those incidents discourage new fans. Because when these things happen, we are talking only about the minority. They are not true football fans and have issues within themselves – let alone anything to do with football.”

Flying the flag

The idea for the Punjabi Rams came to Samra while on a pre-season tour to Dublin in the summer of 2013. He mulled it over for almost the entire 2013-14 season before acting.
“I knew it would always be just an idea unless someone pulled their finger out,” he says. “So I bought a flag for the playoffs and thought: ‘Let’s see how it goes down.’ We were a bit wary of how it might be received.”

The flag’s first outing was at Derby’s playoff semi-final against Brighton last year. “After we won there was a pitch invasion and we got the flag on to the pitch,” says Samra. “Fans from all parts of Derby were coming up to us saying it was a great idea and that the flag represented what Derby is about.”

His initial wariness might have eased, but there are still moments when he is reminded why it was there in the first place. He explains: “The most ridiculous comment we’ve had – and we get it quite a lot – is: ‘Oh, you guys are just normal supporters.’ Just because our parents were born in a different country. But we’re from Derby!”

With the Punjabi Rams and Bangla Bantams both emerging at a time when, as Lord Ouseley says, racism is less of an issue than it once was, why are such groups still needed? And do they represent a step forwards or backwards? 

Uddin says they provide a “vital support network for those fans who might feel a bit isolated”.

He continues: “Now, if there are individual fans who would like to go to games, they can go to the Punjabi Rams – or the Punjabi Wolves, at Wolverhampton Wanderers – and ask what it’s like. It’s about giving people the confidence to embrace football.”

For Michael Johnson, though, the existence of such groups is a catch-22 situation. “It’s sad that we have to talk about racism full stop in 2015,” he argues. “These groups have been formed to say to the Asian community: ‘It’s cool to come and watch football.’ 

“The question is: why can’t Wolves or Derby fans from all walks of life be comfortable at football without feeling like they have to come in a group? Football has to do more to break down these beliefs that English football is just for a group of men between the ages of 20 and 50 who want to cause problems and abuse anybody they see: Asian, female, black, homosexual, disabled people – whoever it may be.”

Work in progress

Things have improved on that front, but change is still needed. “I know from chatting to our older members that there used to be a lot of abuse on the terraces when there was no self-policing,” says Samra. “Now, people don’t allow fans to say things as much. But it’s always a work in progress. Some guys went to a game recently and people in the crowd were saying: ‘We’re losing because we’ve got too many black players on the pitch.’”

Uddin’s work with the Football Supporters’ Federation and Kick It Out means he sees how much work still needs to be done.

“There are kids in Bradford who can see the stadium from where they live,” he says. “They play football from 9am until 1pm, when their parents call them in and say: ‘Football fans are here, let’s go home. When the football’s finished you can go back out.’

“This comes from a fear developed years ago that has been passed to the next generation. These kids want to be footballers. Their best development would be to finish playing, walk 10 yards to the ground and watch the football.”

The clubs themselves could do much more to encourage more fans from ethnic minorities to attend games, says Samra: “I don’t think they are being proactive enough. It’s down to groups such as the Football Supporters’ Federation, Kick It Out and supporters groups like us to push the agenda because football clubs don’t want to upset anybody.”

Uddin agrees. “Big clubs know that if they were to lose a few fans who were upset by the chanting, they’d get some more supporters in to come and take their seats,” he says. “Many clubs have long waiting lists for season tickets and memberships. That’s the reality.”

A week after Chelsea’s trip to France, a group of supporters thought to be West Ham fans were filmed chanting anti-Semitic abuse ahead of a match against Tottenham. West Ham’s response was to release a statement saying: “If any individual is found to have behaved in an inappropriate way, the club’s simple, zero-tolerance policy dictates that they will face the strongest possible action.”

For Uddin, however, this didn’t go far enough: “They didn’t address the incident directly and say: ‘Anti-Semitic chanting is deplorable.’ You want to see clubs coming out strong and showing how seriously they take these issues.”

When he played for West Ham, Uddin – the first person of Bangladeshi origin to play professional football in England – was asked by friends and family to do more to engage the local community. 

But he says that, from the club’s point of view, there was simply no need: 

“West Ham were selling out every week – even if they’d had 10,000 more seats they’d have sold out. Now they’re moving to Stratford and have loads of seats to fill, they need to do more to engage the Asian community. 

“I’ve seen a lot of the great work West Ham do, but maybe if there had been a bigger effort made 10 years ago, they’d move in more comfortably. The local community has switched off. They all support Liverpool, Manchester United or Arsenal. Some clubs do have a diverse fanbase that reflects the area they live in, and these are the clubs that do great work with their community. But others need to dedicate more resource to it. It is seen as a bit of a luxury problem.”

Uddin believes there are deep-rooted reasons clubs don’t attract as many fans from Asian communities as they might expect – and why changing that might require more effort from clubs than they are currently making.

“Most football fans develop a relationship with their club through family history, but that’s not the case for most Asian families,” he explains. “For me, it came from my mother’s side. She’s English and from the east end of London, so her whole family are West Ham. 

“Most of the Asian community don’t have that connection, so they almost have to manufacture it. For a lot of the Asian community who came here in the 1960s and 1970s, the teams doing well were Manchester United and Liverpool – so that’s who a lot of them support. They’ve carried that down through the generations, so you have people in London supporting United and Liverpool.

“It has only been in this third generation that we have started to see Asian families go to football. The parents of those parents wouldn’t have done that because of the negative stereotype attached to fans in the 1970s and ’80s. Football grounds weren’t a safe place to be for any underrepresented community then – not just the Asian community.”

A global game? 

Uddin believes that change is happening, and credits Kick It Out for encouraging underrepresented groups to attend games: “Because of that change you will hopefully see more [Asian] players, more fans and hopefully, in 10 or 20 years, this won’t be the issue it is now.”

Despite his positive experiences with the Rams, Samra is less optimistic. “We’re still talking about the same issues people were talking about 30 years ago,” he insists. “Nothing has really changed because there’s always a few idiots in society who think it’s funny to be abusive or have a bit of what they think is banter. It’s a word used to mask a lot of issues.”

Samra has often attended England games. But he says: “If you look at an England game on TV, you’ll struggle to see a non-white face in the crowd. No one really questions it, but the atmosphere at England games is quite intimidating. If you ask a lot of Asian football fans if they support England, they will say no. During a World Cup they’ll support Italy or Brazil for no logical reason.

“You could talk about the St George’s Cross being associated with groups like the English Defence League and how they might try to use England games to push different agendas. It puts people off going to watch. I’d love to go to an England away game, but my Asian friends would have no interest because they would assume it might be intimidating. Until the FA gets involved, I can’t see that changing.”

In response, an FA spokesperson told Sport: “The FA works proactively with fans from minority groups at all levels 
of the game, from facilitating ticket giveaways to England games to local communities in Brent, itself an incredibly diverse place, to engaging with some of the emerging LGBT supporter groups at conferences on tackling homophobia. We applaud initiatives like the FSF’s Fans for Diversity scheme, as well as the ongoing work clubs do, such as the Arsenal for Everyone scheme and Chelsea’s ‘Building Bridges’ programme.” 

It’s not enough, says Samra: “You can’t deal with racism by using it as a buzzword when you feel like it. A sustained campaign is needed. It’s about education and trying to change mindsets.” 
Samra believes issues need to be fixed at club level before change can happen at national level, but says the FA has to take the lead. Michael Johnson agrees.

“The FA has to drive down the policies and procedures,” he says. “We have people from all walks of life watching the game now, and billions of pounds are being pumped into it. Some of that money should go into equality work and making football an acceptable place for everybody. The FA needs to push that agenda, and hopefully clubs will follow.”

Uddin, however, warns the FA’s reach only goes so far: “Discrimination will never go from the game completely because it isn’t just football’s problem – it’s society’s problem. It’s about education, parents and communities. A lot of people blame football. Yes, the game has the finances to do something about it, but at the end of the day it’s our problem that we need to fix. Hopefully that will help the change in football.” 

No one believes that change will come easily. But everyone recognises football has the power to make it possible.