Happy Birthday – September 22 – Ronaldo, Sabine Lisicki, Thiago Silva

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Ronaldo, Sabine Lisicki and Thiago Silva celebrate today.

Brazil's Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest football players of all time, turns 39 today.

The former Barcelona, Inter and Real Madrid striker is one of only four players to have won the FIFA World Player of the Year award three times or more and won the Ballon d'Or twice.

In February 2011, Ronaldo announced his retirement from football having amassed 98 caps for Brazil and scoring 62 goals.

In addition to his goalscoring prowess, the Brazilian's playing days are remembered for his passing and crossing ability as well as some unorthadox haircuts.

1970: Emmanuel Petit, former Arsenal and Chelsea midfielder and World Cup winner with France (44).

1977: Paul Sculthorpe, retired Great Britain/St Helens loose forward and two-time Man of Steel winner (37).

1978: Harry Kewell, ex-Leeds, Liverpool and Australia forward who is now coaching Watford U-21s (36).

1978: Ed Joyce, Ireland and Sussex batsman, who has also played for England (36).

1984: Thiago Silva, defender and captain of PSG and Brazil football team (30).

1989: Sabine Lisicki, big-hitting 2013 Wimbledon finalist from Germany (25).

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Qatar Arc reflects Gulf racing passion

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Aiming for glory: Treve.

“Not a race but a monument.” The Qatar Grand Prix Arc de Triomphe’s slogan was adopted over a decade ago in 2003 but has never been as fitting.

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The 94th edition of Europe’s most iconic flat horse race will be followed by a billion viewers worldwide on October 3-4, keen to witness history on the turf where odds-on favorite Treve aims at an unprecedented treble, and in the stands where 40,000 spectators will bid a temporary farewell to the Longchamp racecourse in Paris’ Western suburbs.

The race’s format has remained unchanged throughout the years, held on the first Sunday of October and starting next to the historical windmill dating back to 1857 before a right-hand bend takes participants to the finishing line after 2,400 metres.

Its stakeholders on the other hand have varied over time in accordance with the economic shift from Europe to the emerging markets, particularly in the Gulf region.

Known as L’Arc, it was created in the wake of World War I and named after the arch atop Champs Elysees Avenue where Allied troops paraded to celebrate their victory. A symbol of France’s prestige, this arch was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806 after the Austerlitz victory that constituted the pinnacle of his political might over the European continent.

L’Arc’s relationship with France’s key political and industrial stakeholders was progressively established in the 1920s and 1930s, the country’s most powerful families investing in thoroughbred horse race and competing by proxy to establish their prevalence.

Among the pioneering horse owners stood Edouard de Rothschild, who won twice in the interwar period with Brantome in 1934 and Eclair au Chocolat in 1938, both of whom would later be seized by the Nazis during World War II. The race’s two-year hiatus in 1939 and 1940 was its only interruption throughout a 95-year history.

Another prominent French industrialist distinguished himself during that period: Marcel Dussac, owner of Maison Dior, who holds the all-time record with six victories from horses he owned from 1936 to 1949.

A year before Dussac’s first victory, in 1935, the race started being financed by the French state who funded L’Arc through a national lottery awarding up to 50 million francs (Dh6.2m in today’s currency) to the winners.

This system lasted until 1982, when private companies took over sponsorship and incrementally led to the race becoming the world’s richest turf race at that time.

Initial sponsors for the event in the 1980s and 1990s included Trusthouse Forte, a now-defunct British hotel and restaurant conglomerate, to Groupe Lucien Barrière, a French group generating over a billion euros in revenue out of the operation of casinos.

Although sponsors remained European, horse owners from outside the Old Continent increasingly engraved their names on L’Arc trophy.

Middle Eastern fortunes increasingly mixed up with traditional French industrial champions such as Chanel owner Jacques Wertheimer, whose horses Ivanjica and Gold River won in 1976 and 1980.

Khalid bin Abdullah, member of the House of Saud ruling over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, took two consecutive editions in 1985 and 1986.

Less than a decade later in 1994, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of UAE and ruler of Dubai, celebrated the victory of his horse Carnegie, ridden by Thierry Jarnet. His nephew Sheikh Saeed won in 1995 with Lammtarra so that the L’Arc trophy would stay in Dubai one more year, a sign of the times.

It is no surprise in light of these developments that the Al-Thani family ruling over Qatar took an interest in L’Arc as an opportunity to build on a century-old tradition of horse racing on the peninsula.

In 2008, France Galop (the governing body of horse racing in the country) signed a 15-year partnership agreement with the Qatar Equestrian and Racing Club, chaired by Mohamed Bin Faleh Al Thani. Under the terms of this agreement, the race was renamed Qatar Grand Prix Arc de Triomphe and prize money doubled from €2m (Dh8.3m) in 2007 to €4m (Dh16.5m) in 2010 before being upgraded to €5m (Dh20m).

An interesting case of regional balance of power transcribed to the sports field, L’Arc is now only second to the Dubai World Cup (with a yearly purse of $10m –Dh36.7m) as the world’s richest horse race.

Qatar’s hold has been extended from sponsorship to horse ownership, the Emir’s younger brother Joaan Al Thani purchasing Treve in 2013.

The French bay filly that had not found a bidder at an auction months earlier, and was re-purchased by its breeder for €22,000 (Dh91,000), won that year’s L’Arc at a canter by five lengths and repeated the feat the following year partnered on both occasions with Jarnet, the jockey who 21 years ago led Sheikh Mohammed’s Carnegie to victory.

Treve’s unique abilities were underlined once again in the Prix Vermeille last week and confirmed not just her status as odds-on favorite, but her importance to the race’s commercialization.

The Longchamp racecourse was adorned with #FollowTreve hashtags and its marketing impact has clearly been felt. After its 2014 victory, UK broadcaster Channel 4 reported a 17 per cent year-on-year increase in TV ratings entirely attributed to Treve’s double.

“We have witnessed increased interest from people who do not necessarily follow horse races but are looking for stars, and Treve is a star,” says France Galop president Bertrand Belinguier.

Treve can now complete a historical treble that would also witness Jarnet becoming the first jockey to win L’Arc five times. The reputational windfall for Qatar and the Al Thani family who own Treve would be substantial in a context of regional rivalry. One can imagine the dismay that may surround the stands if this projected hat-trick is thwarted by New Bay, the race’s second-favourite, owned by Khalid Abdullah of the House of Saud.

This regional competition between resource-rich Gulf states on the wet turf of Longchamp is an illustration of how GCC has invested in past years to acquire prestige by tying up with events and brands that have strong name equity.

The progressive appropriation of a ‘monumental’ race, whose symbolic value once reflected France’s prestige, is now a showcase of the Gulf region’s power reflecting the diverging economic fortunes experienced in Europe and the Middle East in past decades.

Hours after the race ends, wrecking crews will demolish the Longchamp stands dating back to 1962 to make way for a modernised venue. The France Galop board submitted a €131m (Dh543m) plan last January to the Paris municipality that will witness the setting up of a synthetic dirt track to increase the number of races throughout the year and boost attendance by 35 per cent.

“It would be great to open ourselves to everyone and reach a new audience,” said Christiane Head-Maarek, Treve’s trainer.

Concerns around the investors behind the project delayed the city council’s decision. In the end France Galop pledged to use its own equity and a banking loan from a national institution to retain the venue’s independence.

In the meantime, the 2016 edition of L’Arc will be held in Chantilly while works are ongoing at Longchamp. Winds of change will clearly be blowing on the first Sunday of October.

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Inside Story: Spanish talent drying up after the Nadal-led golden generation

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Celebrations: 2011 Davis Cup.

Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, Tommy Robredo, Fernando Verdasco… a group of veteran players that have helped keep Spanish tennis at the forefront of the sport over the past decade.

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They are five of 14 Spaniards currently ranked in the top-100 of the ATP rankings and their names are synonymous with what is referred to as the country’s ‘golden generation’ of tennis stars.

While 14 top-100 players is a remarkable figure for one country to produce, it’s worth noting that the average age of those players is 30.

It’s not likely many of those guys will be around that much longer. A quick scan of the ITF world junior rankings reveals only two Spanish boys are ranked in the top-100 – Alvaro Lopez San Martin at No 14 and Eduard Guell Bartrina at No 97.

You’d think having a superstar like Nadal, a 14-time grand slam champion and one of the greatest of all-time, would have sparked a tennis revolution in a country that already has the sport rooted in its tradition. But since Nadal & Co. have risen to the top, very few Spanish men have emerged.

The youngest Spaniard in the top-100 is 24-year-old Pablo Carreno Busta. The Gijon native is No 60 in the world and his name is constantly brought up when any of the older players are asked about the future of Spanish tennis.

Carreno Busta is talented and has an impressive record of winning 10 out of 10 Challenger finals, but at 24, he’s only managed to make two ATP semi-finals and is hardly the great big hope his compatriots are building him up to be.

The lack of young blood is evident in the Spanish field with only four players aged under 25 out of the 24 players that are ranked in the top 300.

And while waiting for another Nadal is not realistic, it’s also not normal that it is now 10 years since the Mallorcan won his first major yet very few Spanish juniors are coming up. It’s almost like the well that has been producing champions is drying up and very few can pinpoint the reasons why.

“Unfortunately, Spanish tennis has not renewed itself enough in recent years, in my opinion,” said Nadal’s coach and uncle, Toni Nadal at the French Open last May.

Great hope: Pablo Carreno.

“The youngest Spanish player is Pablo Carreno and he is 24. This is a fundamental problem. We should adapt to the new situation of tennis because the game is getting quicker and quicker. Those who are governing the sport must do something.

“It’s also true that it’s an individual job of each coach and each club but it is symptomatic that this chain of very good players that has formed over many years is coming to an end.”

The average age of the Spanish players in the top-100 has gone up from 24 to 30 over the past 10 years and while the sport in general has aged, this is still a stunning leap.

Toni Nadal implies that with big-servers and huge-hitters taking over the game, the slower, counterpunching style typically associated with Spanish tennis is no longer as effective as it used to be, but that cannot be the only reason the sport is stagnating there.

The financial crisis that rocked the Spanish economy in 2011 has had a major impact on sport and tennis certainly did not escape the ramifications.

The latest numbers available on the website of the Spanish Tennis Federation (RFET) show that licenses issued by the national governing body had gone down to 89,830 in 2013 compared to 102,900 in 2006.

“I don’t think in Spain there’s this relation where ‘I admire Rafa therefore I play tennis’. Whereas ‘I admire Messi, I want to play football’ is more common, or Ronaldo or whoever. Tennis is related probably to a specific type of income and therefore with the crisis it’s going down in Spain,” says Marta Mateo, a tennis reporter for Spanish daily La Vanguardia.

“There is a crisis in clubs and federations. There’s a huge debt that is asphyxiating the regional federations and the licenses are decreasing massively.”

The RFET have been criticised for their misuse of funds and earlier this year, the government sports council (CSD) has been attempting to track down what happened to at least €700,000 the RFET paid out to the Spanish Tennis Foundation (which was controlled by RFET expresident José Luis Escañuela who resigned in July) and the Spanish Tennis Observatory.

A report in Spanish daily newspaper La Voz de Galicia published last June said that they had access to the books of the Spanish Tennis Foundation which revealed they had spent €12,000 on candy in 2012 and 2013.

Nadal and many of the top Spanish players had voiced their anger at the RFET for mishandling several issues, including Davis Cup-related problems, and said the federation was deterring the development of tennis in Spain.

“The RFET didn’t help a lot of young players. And not only young players, we, the experienced players as well. So we have covered a lot of ground ourselves without the full support of the Spanish Federation,” Nadal told reporters in Paris last May.

“I took part in the Wimbledon juniors tournament and I had to pay for the hotel, for the trip, for almost everything…

“The Davis Cup is a vital source of money for Spanish tennis, and the RFET should help support young players. So the RFET decided not to focus too much on the Davis Cup. What’s happening now? In fact, we are not making the right decisions in order to make money, so I cannot understand their stance. I can’t understand why they undermine the future of Spanish tennis.”

World No 16 Feliciano Lopez shares Nadal’s views but also says their generation is a rarity and it was only normal for the level to drop after them.

“There won’t be a generation like ours,” Lopez, 34, said at the Australian Open last year. “There will be guys who will play great tennis for sure, and be professionals, but I don’t think any new generation will equal five Davis Cups in 10 years or having twelve men in the top-100 almost permanently.

“It will come to an end. Like with the football or the basketball. The talent is the most important thing, not just what federations plan. Look at Sweden, they had amazing players and now they struggle to get one in the top 100.”

Indeed Spain’s golden generation is tough to comprehend and will be tough to replicate.

“I am No 60 in the world and I am Spanish No 11 (now No 9). It’s amazing, you can’t understand this,” Carreno Busta told Sport360 at Wimbledon last July.

“I think I have to be better. I know I can be better, I have to practice, I need to focus on tennis, not on anything else and I think I will be better in a few years.”

While the current stars will soon hang up their racquets one by one, the future is not completely bleak for Spanish tennis, especially on the women’s side.

“In terms of juniors, I would say Jaume Munar is the only one that is kind of giving something,” said Mateo. “He played the final of Roland Garros juniors last year and he’s under the Nadal umbrella. I don’t think he can be No 1 in the world but perhaps the same potential as Pablo Carreno.

“Whereas the men are stagnating, I would say with the girls the timing has been perfect because of Garbine Muguruza (Wimbledon runner-up this year) and Carla Suarez Navarro (world No 12).

“Obviously, you have Paula Badosa coming up, Aliona Bolsova as well. Paula is giving signs that she’s going to be really really good. She won Roland Garros juniors this year but she’s already playing professional tournaments.”

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