UK soccer veterans lend helping hand

Neal Collins

Ian Wright will lead a 16-strong squad of England veterans to South Africa later this month as Britain pitches in to help the victims of the Ellis Park disaster.

The team will play a charity match at King’s Park rugby stadium in Durban on June 28 with the proceeds going to the families of the 43 fans who died during the crush at the Kaizer Chiefs vs Orlando Pirates derby on April 11 this year.

Wright, Arsenal’s legend and one of the game’s most entertaining characters on and off the field, has now retired to pursue an equally spectacular career in television chat-shows but he remains a potent totem of the English game.

Joining him in the England squad of over 35s are fellow former England stalwarts John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Gary Mabbutt and Chris Waddle with nearly 250 international caps between them.

Football Association executive director David Davies says: “This match demonstrates our support for those who died. Our sympathies go to the families. We’ve been in contact with [world governing body] Fifa to share the lessons we ourselves have learned in the not too distant past.”

African football has suffered several major stadium tragedies over the past year and the English believe their response to the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster could be the way ahead for African football.

@Who’s really the best?

Martin Gillingham athletics

The Michael Johnson gravy train could well be stopping at a station near you. That is, of course, if the meeting promoter is prepared to stump up $100 000 just to see the great man run 400m with relay baton in hand.

The world’s greatest athlete has run his final individual race. All that remains in a career that effectively ended with Olympic gold in Sydney is a final superannuation sprint around Europe which enables Johnson to line his pockets without running the risk of damaging his reputation through personal defeat. The Farewell Tour is a series of orchestrated relay races with Johnson’s leg the raison d’etre. In a sporting world sullied by the greed of its central performers, this is a rip-off too far.

The sobriquet, “the world’s greatest athlete”, has been bestowed on many with Johnson the most recent recipient. But unlike sports like soccer and cricket, where the names of Pele and Bradman would go unchallenged, the debate on track and field’s finest will be long and probably without a definitive conclusion.

If greatness is measured by domination then two names stand above all others. Parry O’Brien was born and raised in Hollywood where, while many youngsters dreamed of movie stardom, he practised the shot from a circle painted on the driveway of his parents’ house.

In a career that spanned 16 years he won the Olympic title twice in 1952 and 1956 and became the first man to put beyond 60 feet. His legacy is the technique which saw him the first man to start with his back facing the throwing line. The O’Brien “glide” or “shift” is still used by world-class putters today.

Edwin Moses won 122 straight 400m hurdles races over 10 years until Danny Harris beat him in Madrid in June 1987. Several weeks later, in Rome, Moses lined up for the world championships final with Harris and Harald Schmid on either side of him. It was probably the greatest race yet with Moses, then 32, hanging on to the title he’d won four years earlier in Helsinki. Harris was second and Schmid third with just 0,02sec separating the trio.

Moses’s domination was such that he virtually owned the event for 12 years. Sergey Bubka’s grip on the pole vault was equally firm. He was a surprise winner at the first world championships in 1983 but went on to win five more. Two years later, he was the first man to clear six metres it continues to be a rare feat and over the next 15 years cleared it another 43 times. Throw 35 world records into the mix that’s indoors and out and you have the most accomplished athlete ever.

That, of course, is if records and statistics are your guiding principles. If aesthetics play a more significant role then the relaxed gait and effortless acceleration of Sebastian Coe are tough to match. Though his solo runs against the clock which brought him world records at 800m, 1000m, 1500m and the mile are what defined his brilliance, his head-to-heads with fellow Briton Steve Ovett are what linger in the memory. Those happened at the 1980 Olympic Games where it was anticipated that the debate over which was the better of the two would be resolved. In the end, the titles were shared with each beating the other in their specialist event Ovett won the 800m and Coe the 1500m.

No debate over who was the greatest would be complete without including Carl Lewis. A recent poll of top journalists had the American as their number one. Lewis hit the headlines in 1983 when he won three titles at the inaugural world championships but he will be remembered best for his four gold medals at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles the following year. One of those victories came in the long jump which is a title he successfully defended on three more occasions.

The greatest single athletics performance came from a woman. Marita Koch was the most successful product of the since discredited East German machine. Her 400m of 47,60 at the 1985 World Cup in Canberra is a world record that may never be beaten. In fact, just one athlete has ever got within one second of it since.

lllSo which of these was the greatest? Or, to second guess the letter writers, who’s been left out who shouldn’t have been?

Try these: Jim Thorpe, Paavo Nurmi, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Herb Elliott, Al Oerter, Jesse Owens, Irena Szewinska, Jan Zelezny, Daley Thompson, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Heike Drechsler, Haile Gebrselassie, Bob Beamon and Dick Fosbury. Any more?

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