Friday 19 January 2018

All fairways lead to Rio

The US Open tees off this week but for many of the world's top players, the World Cup will grab plenty of attention.

Jose Maria Olazabal
Jose Maria Olazabal

Karl MacGinty

FOOTBALL'S World Cup and golf's US Open swing into action this week, threatening to make telly addicts out of the entire sporting planet.

The soccer-crazy superstars of golf will be no exception as they devote every spare moment at the season's second Major championship in Pinehurst, North Carolina, tuning into events in Brazil.

When it comes to football-mania, the European Tour is in a league of its own, from Red Devils Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell to Forest fanatic Lee Westwood.

"You have got to follow the game out here or you won't survive, all the stuff that is going on," says Dane Thomas Bjorn, a Liverpool fan.

"The World Cup is all we'll talk about for the next three weeks," added World No 23, who, sadly, will have plenty of time to watch the football after being forced out of the US Open in recent days with neck and shoulder injuries.

Bjorn, who in the absence of his own national team, "always goes for the Germans", but when national bragging rights are involved, the stakes rise even higher on Tour.

Italian Francesco Molinari, for example, concedes that the banter could almost be unbearable from the Tour's massive English contingent if his countrymen do not do the business in Saturday's showdown with Steven Gerrard and Co.

Yet Justin Rose is more confident about his own prospects of defending the US Open title he won so brilliantly in Merion last year than England winning the World Cup.

Neither the Republic nor Northern Ireland qualified for Brazil but when it comes to World Cup memories, we Irish have our fair share.

The English, meanwhile, have endured more sudden death than glory.

"Those German penalty heartbreak memories all meld into one, because it has happened so often," says Rose, who goes back 16 years for his fondest World Cup moment.

"Michael Owen's wonder goal against Argentina in '98 is my favourite, when he went all the way and applied a great finish.

"That coincided with my big finish as an amateur in the Open at Royal Birkdale, so we both were similar ages and had an amazing summer."

As for the question on everyone's lips in these islands, Rose says: "I think England will scrap their way through the group stages and maybe not much further.

"Let's just hope this is the year they surprise us."


RYDER CUP captain Paul McGinley certainly was game for a laugh when he nipped across the Atlantic for Ireland's 1994 World Cup showdown with Holland in Orlando – and became one of Mrs Brown's Boys.

"I'd missed the cut at the Irish Open in Mount Juliet and said to JP Fitzgerald (his caddie) 'come on, let's go to the World Cup in America,'" explains McGinley, a long-time football fan whose favourite clubs are West Ham, where he's a season ticket holder, and Celtic.

"I rang Kevin Moran and he got me two tickets," the Dubliner adds. "That's where I met Brendan O'Carroll for the first time. We played Lake Nona and I laughed non-stop for about three days. Great craic."

There wasn't much cheer for the Irish on the field at the Citrus Bowl as Holland took control in the stifling head with first-half goals from Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk, then Paul McGrath had a sizzling consolation goal disallowed.

McGrath played a starring role in McGinley's most cherished World Cup memory a couple of weekends earlier as he starred in the 1-0 win over Italy at the Giants Stadium.

"We were playing the Jersey Open and that Saturday we all went to the Warehouse, a place in St Helier owned by an Irish guy," the golfer explains. "We just had a great night in there, Des Smyth and The Darce and Christy Jnr.

"Ray Houghton got that fantastic goal and, in modern-day parlance, we just parked the bus ... in fact, we parked three buses in front of the goal and Paul McGrath was a bus on his own.

"I remember the minute the final whistle went, the disco started!"

McGinley's first allegiance was to Gaelic football and the Dubs but he also played soccer at right-back and, for many years growing up, used to sell match programmes outside games at Lansdowne Road.

"You'd have about three coats on so you'd enough pockets for all the change," he said.

"You'd be standing there with about 500 programmes and fellas trying to rob them all the time. I used make about £40 profit!"


FAMOUSLY passionate about the Ryder Cup, Jose Maria Olazabal admits he also shed tears of joy when Spain overcame a rugged, occasionally ruthless Dutch side 1-0 in a bad-tempered 2010 World Cup final in Johannesburg.

Medinah miracle worker Olazabal and the legendary Seve Ballesteros were at the heart of Europe's growth from perennial underdogs into a dominant force at the Ryder Cup.

Both men also followed football and were lifelong supporters of their local clubs.

The late Seve's loyalty was to Racing Santander, while Olazabal's allegiance is to Real Sociedad.

"It's a small team," says Olazabal somewhat modestly of a club which twice won La Liga in the '80s and, since returning to the top flight in 2010, qualified for the Champions League last year.

Olazabal's eyes light up at the mention of John Aldridge, the Irishman who joined the club from Liverpool in 1989 and was the first non-Basque to play for Real Sociedad.

"Aldridge was a good player for us and is well remembered. He was a formidable goalscorer," says Olazabal. The stats back him up. Aldo was top scorer in both his seasons at the club, amassing 33 league goals.

Though he enjoyed "playing football with my friends at school and on the beach", two-times Masters champion Olazabal's future lay in golf. Still, that didn't spare him the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which scar all soccer fans.

The moment of festering injustice that haunts every Spaniard occurred during the 1994 quarter-final against Italy when Mauro Tassotti smashed Luis Enrique's nose with his elbow and wasn't even penalised.

FIFA later banned the Italian for eight matches, effectively ending his career, but Spain that day lost Enrique (recently appointed as Barcelona manager) and the match. "Nothing was given, not even a foul," says Olazabal, shaking his head.

"We've had big hopes at the World Cup and we've suffered, so winning in South Africa was just unbelievable. I have to be honest, a few tears dropped that day."

However, emotion doesn't cloud his judgment. "I don't think we're going to do as well in Brazil," Olazabal adds. "We're not moving the ball as we used to and I think some of the players are just getting over their prime. As forward players go, I think we're so-so."


ITALY'S Ryder Cup star Francesco Molinari doesn't recall events at the Giants Stadium in June 1994 as clearly as the Irish.

Ray Houghton's goal, Paul McGrath's majesty and the Republic's famous World Cup victory over Italy all receive little more than a nonchalant shrug.

"I remember that," he admits. "We didn't start that World Cup very well but managed to get out of the group and then went to the final. That was a good run.

"That's usually the way with Italy. If we play too well in the first few games, it's never a good sign. In fact, everything's been a bit too quiet for us before Rio.

"Usually when we're going to do well at the World Cup, there are big problems in the team beforehand. Maybe we need something to happen, Mario Balotelli to do something really stupid," he jokes.

Molinari knows he can ill afford a slow start by Italy against England on Saturday.

"It's really important to get something out of that game," he says, "because there are too many English guys out here on Tour and it could be painful. There'll be a lot of banter."

Only 11 when Italy went all the way to the final in USA 94, Molinari's favourite World Cup memory is beating France on penalties in the 2006 final, a game made famous by Zinedine Zidane's red card for butting Marco Materazzi in the chest.

Salvatore Schillaci, whose goal beat Ireland in the quarter-finals of Italia 90 "is still a national hero in Italy," reveals Molinari, just seven during that World Cup.

"I remember they played a few matches in my home town, Turin. There was great excitement but I was too young to go to the games."

So, is it Juventus or Torino? "Neither," retorts Molinari. "I'm Inter, one of few in Turin. My family are all Juventus fans and I wanted to be different."

Like the Republic, his favourite team was managed by Giovanni Trapattoni.

Only eight when Trap left after five years in charge, Molinari confesses: "He won a championship with Inter, but I have to say he is not my favourite manager."

Many Irish fans would agree! "I know," says Molinari with a smile.


FOOTBALL or golf? As a boy in Dusseldorf, Martin Kaymer (right) was good enough at both to have to make a choice.

He decided to seek his fortune on the fairways, becoming a Major champion, world No 1 and feted across the Europe as the man who put the finishing touch on the Ryder Cup 'Miracle at Medinah'.

Yet had Kaymer (29), renowned for his focus, opted for soccer, he might have been playing with the German World Cup squad in Rio this week instead of the US Open at Pinehurst.

"I was in between football and golf," explains Kaymer, adding modestly: "I wasn't bad at football.

"I played striker and got a few goals in my time.

"But in golf, you are your own boss and that suited me a little better."

He enjoys soccer to this day and is good mates with several members of the German squad. Yet Kaymer's fondest memory from his nation's World Cup treasure trove didn't happen on the field of play.

Instead, he reveals, "it is the opening ceremony in 2006 when the World Cup was played in Germany. I watched it on TV and it was quite special. The whole tournament was."

That World Cup was a major watershed in the history of his homeland, when millions of Germans, 16 years after reunification, felt able to wave their flag with an uninhibited sense of national pride.

"It was really nice to see Germany changing and everyone was in a good mood," adds Kaymer. "That's a really special memory. It was one of those times when football was more than a game."


A TRUE measure of the damage wreaked upon French football by the catastrophic implosion of their national squad during the 2010 World Cup can be found in the words of Alexander Levy.

For most of his 23 years, Levy was passionate about soccer, especially his local team Olympique de Marseille.

However, since the shambles in South Africa, when mutiny in the camp brought disgrace to France, Levy admits: "I like football and was a big fan but now a little bit less. I am more rugby now."

Levy rivals Victor Dubuisson as one of the brightest talents in an exciting new generation of French golfers.

As a boy, he idolised the stars of 'Les Bleus'. Though only eight, he remembers vividly the excitement of the 1998 World Cup in France and the home team's march to victory, starting in Marseille.

Levy still reveres the men of '98 but admits: "I don't like the new generation of players because of what happened in Knysna.That was not great for France or the French people."

Knysna was the team's South African base, where the players refused to train after Nicolas Anelka was sent home following a stunning verbal attack on coach Raymond Domanech at half-time in the 2-0 defeat against Mexico.

In a shameful campaign, the French drew their first match 0-0 with Uruguay but, after losing to Mexico, were sent packing by their South African hosts, 2-1.

Of course, France made those 2010 finals courtesy of Thierry Henry's outrageous sleight of hand against the Republic in Paris, when he blatantly palmed the ball to William Gallas for the decisive extra-time goal in the play-off.

"That's life," says Levy. "It was not good because it was cheating.

"In golf if you cheat, you can be suspended for one or two years."

Levy is still rooting strongly for France this time around.

"We have the talent but it depends on the mentality of all the players," he states.

"If that is right, I think it's possible to win the World Cup."

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