Another busy week in the world of sports means the second of what is sure to be many winter installments of Ruttig’s Rants: Rapid Fire Edition is on its way.
The NFL season kicks off this weekend and while the Super Bowl champion and my childhood team of choice, the New York Giants, take on the Dallas Cowboys during the week, it is always the first Sunday of the NFL season that gets the most enjoyment out of me. Every team is a contender on the opening week of the season and there is finally an unlimited amount of sports to watch on the television, which is perfect once the cold weather of the fall/winter creeps in. My fantasy team has been picked and you can be sure I will have a pro-line or two hoping that my mediocre gambling knowledge pays off to something other than a few dollars to the Western Canadian Lottery Corporation.
This particular NFL season proves hard to predict, the New Orleans Saints have a missing head coach and starting linebacker due to their suspensions for laying bounties on opposing players, the Pittsburgh Steelers are getting old, the Baltimore Ravens still don’t have a quarterback and are getting as old as the Steelers. The defending champion New York Giants admittedly got hot at the right time last year and were mediocre for long stretches of the season, and as much as some people want to believe the Denver Broncos will be contenders with Peyton Manning, I just can’t see him coming back from injury to win a Super Bowl with the squad the Broncos have. With that being said the Green Bay Packers, who were upset at home during the playoffs last year seem like they will once again be the favorites in the NFC. As for the AFC I would think that the New England Patriots would once again have the best chance to come out of the AFC East with the combination of Tom Brady and his receivers and the genius of Bill Belichick at head coach will give the Patriots the best chance of reaching the Super Bowl. But don’t be surprised if any of the aforementioned teams reach the big game in what will be a competitive and tight NFL season that will make for many entertaining Sundays.
Back in Canada the CFL’s marquee regular season event, the Labour Day Classic filled television screens on the weekend as the typical matchups were covered on TSN. Hamilton and Toronto continued their Battle of Ontario, Edmonton and Calgary also carried their provincial rivalry, and Montreal and B.C. continued their tradition of being the game nobody gives a damn about. However around here the big ticket is obviously the Labour Day Classic, which has become a tradition that rivals some college football rivalries in terms of intensity, pageantry, and pure alcoholism and partying spirit as Taylor Field houses the Roughrider faithful and whatever Bomber fans crazy enough to make the trip to Regina. Sure the Banjo Bowl the following week is almost the same for Winnipeg Blue Bomber fans, but the Labour Day Classic is undoubtedly the biggest weekend on the Saskatchewan sports calendar year in and year out and showcases how much our province really does care about our football team and gives the Roughriders a sell out every season regardless of the team’s record at the time. Lately the rivalry has served as a turnaround for Saskatchewan as last year a Labour Day/Banjo Bowl sweep sparked a winning streak for the Riders that gave their playoff hopes one last breath before falling back to earth. This season the Riders snapped a five game losing streak with a 52-0 victory that should make Bomber fans question whether firing former Riders coaching staff member Paul LaPolice was a good idea after all. The Riders will be very heavy favorites to follow up with a win at the Banjo Bowl in Winnipeg and the extra wins will be needed in what is shaping up to be a tight Western Division points race. Whether or not the Riders can continue their play against teams not named the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won’t be determined for a couple of weeks, but the extra wins over their hated rivals sure will help come the end of the season.
Across the pond, the other type of football was the big news of the week as the transfer window closed in many of Europe’s top leagues, making player moves of contracted players nearly impossible until January. Think of the NHL Free Agent Frenzy but then add to the fact that clubs will legitimately throw $50 million Euro’s at nearly anyone without rhyme or reason just because they have a rich Saudi owner or a Russian oil tycoon running the club. That is what happened last summer when Chelsea paid $50 million Euro’s for striker Fernando Torres from Liverpool only to see him go through one of the worst scoring droughts of a top club striker ever. This year’s deadline day insanity saw Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg pay a combine $70 million Euros for Portuguese league players Hulk, and Axel Witsel in a move that has made them automatic Champions League contenders. Other notable craziness included American born Clint Dempsey seeing his refusal to play for Fullham pay off as he was transferred to slightly better Tottenham and former EPL top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov go from Manchester United to aforementioned Fullham for just $5 million Euro’s. The fact that just four years ago Berbatov went the United as the highest transfer payment in EPL history at $30 some million Euro’s shows just how financially mad soccer is as now transfer amounts as high as nearly $100 million Euro’s have been discussed for top players like Cristiano Ronaldo, the European game will eventually eat itself alive if it continues to allow such loony amounts of money get thrown around with top clubs everywhere running at debt just to chase trophies. The fact that a successful club like Arsenal can’t retain its players simply because it won’t run at massive debt to do so is unnerving to the integrity of the game itself.
In actual on pitch news World Cup Qualifying is taking place over the next two weeks as UEFA looks to kick off its road to Brazil 2014 and the CONCACAF resumes its second qualifying stage. While the European qualifying groups are just beginning and games like England-Moldova and Germany- Faroe Islands aren’t necessarily going to be even contests as every group needs a whooping boy there is some quality in the opening slate of fixtures. Netherlands look to erase their Euro Cup failures against an always competitive Turkish side and Belgium looks to mesh their elite skill players of Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, and the aforementioned Witsel and make the World Cup after failing to qualify for the Euro Cup this summer. These matches showcase why football is the world’s sport as the smallest of countries fill their national stadiums to show their national pride and get behind their countrymen.
At home Canada continues their qualification process with an away fixture against Panama on Friday followed by a return match at BMO Field in Toronto next Tuesday. Canada hasn’t qualified to the World Cup since 1986 and hasn’t passed the second round of the group stage since 1998. With Honduras looking like the favorite in the group despite their nil-nil draw at BMO Field in the summer, Canada’s two matches against Panama are vital to advancing to “The Hex” the name given to the CONCACAF third round. With three guaranteed berths into the World Cup as well as a play-in spot for fourth place in the third qualifying round, Canada needs to take advantage of being placed in a group that does not include the United States or Mexico and get the job done against Panama to grow the men’s game. With a balanced squad of young MLS/European players and CMNT veterans like Julian De Guzman, Dwayne DeRosario and Atiba Hutchinson giving Canada its best squad in ages, there is hope. With the support and pride the Canadian women garnered it would be nice to see some backing in the media and from Canadian sports fans as this group of canucks look to qualify for the world’s biggest sporting event and the hardest tournament in the world to make, let alone win.