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Dublin: 7 °C Sunday 20 January, 2019

Chelsea's 'ruthless chancer', the Brazilian NFL kicker & the week's best sportswriting

Also, Marina Hyde aims both barrels at the latest Fifa farce while Buster Douglas is remembered too.

Image: Rebecca Naden/PA Archive/PA Images

1. This is the elephant in the room. When Abramovich is shown in the directors’ box, commentators talk almost affectionately about his eccentricity, charming grin and beautiful young wife. He is portrayed as a lover of Chelsea. One newspaper once described him as “an astute businessman”.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is a manipulative and ruthless chancer whose money was gained through dubious means, and whose calculated purchase of Chelsea had nothing to do with love of football. He did it to shield himself from possible retribution from Vladimir Putin’s gangster state. He knew that it would be politically tricky, even for a man with as promiscuous an attitude to the rule of law as the Russian leader, to come after a man so closely associated with a high-profile British asset.

Matthew Syed writes in The Times that Jose Mourinho isn’t the root of Chelsea’s problems – that would be the club’s billionaire owner.  

2. Shampaine raced back to the office and found an in-house designer named John Plunkett. He asked if it might be possible for Plunkett to sketch out a little football sitting on a tee, split it lengthwise and give it a hinge so it could open it like a phone. After several revisions, Plunkett took his drawings to a model-maker he knew in lower Manhattan and had him create a prototype that had no electronic guts inside. Using that unit and a hand model, Shampaine was able to put together a direct-mail test that was sent to 35,000 random people identified as potential SI subscribers. Their response was overwhelming: Americans wanted the football phone and they wanted it now, more than any other premium SI was offering.

Of course, now Time Inc. actually had to create several hundred thousand of them ­– without knowing if a phone inside of a football would even work.

Nearly 30 years after Shampaine’s lunchtime walk, the SI football phone is recognized as unlike anything that came before. It proved to be one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever executed in American media. The purpose was to sell magazines, but the football phone also arrived at a time when the entire industry was experiencing a radical change. Cable was relatively new, so there was cheap commercial space to buy up. VHS decks had become popular enough that the idea of owning your own videotapes had become possible. And by the late ’80s, consumers were tired of the same old offerings. You couldn’t buy the football phone in a store or get it from any other magazine, and that exclusivity helped pull SI out of its doldrums. Along with a line of popular VHS tapes, as well as the sneaker phone that followed its football-shaped predecessor, the magazine sold around 1.6 million new subscriptions between 1986 and 1991, thanks in large part to the football phone. Time Inc. would routinely order hundreds of thousands at a time just to keep up with demand.

In the mid-1980s, a marketing guy at Sports Illustrated put a phone inside a plastic miniature football and people went crazy for it, as Erik Malinowski writes in Rolling Stone.   

Busters 25th Boxing Source: Associated Press

3. It was an extraordinary year in the heavyweight business, arguably the last time when people cared or knew about the heavyweight champion of the world; the title mattered and meant something.

Douglas had emerged from obscurity and a small-hall existence to topple Tyson in that iconic slugfest in Tokyo at dawn, and during the months before the Holyfield deal was signed and sealed he enjoyed his celebrity. It cost him his desire, his waistline and his reputation.

The boxing career of Douglas had started by default after his college basketball career abruptly ended when he became academically ineligible, which sounds a bit like shorthand for being not quite good enough for the colleges to cook the books on his grades. 

He started to box, like his father, and his first outing was in a rigged fight against somebody from the gym his father ran. Douglas was not destined for stardom.

He lost his sixth outing when he fell in love on the morning of the fight and needed to be scraped out of bed just before the first bell. His legs, not surprisingly, deserted him and he was done in two rounds. 

Over in The Independent, the long-lost days of high-profile heavyweight boxing are recounted by Steve Bunce, who remembers former champion Buster Douglas and his big pay-day, big defeat and big waistline in October 1990.    

Steelers Chiefs Football Cairo Santos in action for the Kansas City Chiefs Source: Ed Zurga/AP/Press Association Images

4. Take Cairo Santos, a 23-year-old kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL. Hit the rewind button on his life and go back eight years.

Rewind until his square shoulders turn skinny and his confident demeanour shades into shyness. When you get to the part where this elite sportsman is just a nervous 15-year-old exchange student, kicking a football on a Florida driveway while the other kids play basketball, stop. You’ve arrived at the moment his life changes forever.

It was Tyler Burnett, his exchange partner, who saw the young Brazilian’s football prowess and asked him to see if he could kick an American football down the street. Tyler got on his belly and held the ball out.

“I took two steps back and just hit it as hard as I could,” Santos says.

The contact was sweet, and the ball flew, “low, kind of like a soccer kick”. It travelled far, 50 yards or more. The direction was straight and true. And the direction of Santos’ life was altered more wildly than he could have imagined.

“When I look back on that moment, it makes me smile,” Santos recalls. “Right there was a huge turn in my life. It was an introduction to something that I fell in love with.”

James Gheerbrant from the BBC, tells the story of Cairo Santos – the Brazilian kicker with the Kansas City Chiefs who will play at Wembley Stadium later today and whose story is as unique as it is remarkable.  

5. What Uefa should really be considering, now they have surveyed the field and the way in which the wind is blowing, is the possibility of withdrawing from Fifa. Nuclear options increasingly feel like the only way to force the radical change the world governing body needs, and if Europe truly was the moral beacon it likes to fancy itself within the game, then this secession would be starting to feel inevitable. When you consider the financial allegations against Blatter are actually less morally repugnant than the human rights ones against Sheikh Salman … well, what are you really saving your depth charge for? Megatron to get through to the second round on a bye?

As for whether such a game-changer is even remotely on the cards, the smoke signals are not encouraging at present. It doesn’t help that our own emissaries to European HQ are the FA chairman Greg Dyke and his vice-chairman David Gill, who have reportedly told the FA council “the only people they could really trust within Fifa and Uefa are each other”. I don’t want to dampen any flicker of optimism but it might help to think of them as Bob Hope and No Hope. These are the men who precipitously declared their support for Platini, only to see him engulfed in scandal. Yet instead of appearing remotely chastened by a turn of events that could only have been predicted by a few million casual observers of the situation, they had the FA issue a bizarre and wholly reprehensible statement in which they wished Platini “every success” in getting off the hook.

Marina Hyde writes in The Guardian that amidst the calls for change and reform of Fifa, neither is likely to happen when everyone is as bad as each other.    

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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