It has started. The verbal jousting, I mean, between Jose Mourinho, manager of Inter Milan, and Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson, in advance of their clash in the knock-out phase of the European Champions League in late February. Not since the Thriller in Manila has there been a sporting match-up where those of us on the sidelines can derive almost as much pleasure from the pre-match sledging as from the contest itself.
Ferguson is, of course, the past master at winning psychological battles against his rival managers in the Premier League. Most famously his jibes unsettled Kevin Keegan in 1996, when Keegan's Newcastle held a 14-point lead in the Premier League. Keegan was clearly rattled, his edginess spread through the dressing room at St. James's Park, and a previously unassailable lead was duly overhauled by United.
Mourinho, though, is arguably Ferguson's nemesis. Their first memorable encounter was when Mourinho was managing Porto in 2004 and shocked Manchester United at Old Trafford, with a last minute goal by Costinha taking the Portuguese side into the quarter finals of the Champions' League at United's expense. Mourinho's exuberant celebrations on the touchline, charging around, overcoat flapping in the floodlit Manchester night, were considered to be disrespectful to the elder statesman in charge of his opponents.
When Chelsea and United were going head-to-head for the title in 2007, the Special One suggested Manchester United had profited from some questionable penalty calls, while refereeing benevolence rarely came the way of the Londoners. Fergie was outraged at what he saw as a bid to put pressure on officials - the very idea! - but won that battle, and the Premier League and Champions League titles as well. It was Mourinho, though, who came out on top in the first FA Cup at the new Wembley Stadium when Didier Drogba grabbed a winning goal towards the end of extra-time.
I should say Ferguson is more or less leading the contest, but Mourinho's desire to strike back is almost palpable. His first shot across Fergie's bows is the suggestion that his countryman Cristiano Ronaldo, winner of the Ballon d'Or as European Player of the Year, is not worthy of the award, which should instead have gone to Kaka, Lionel Messi, or Inter Milan's own Zlatan Ibrahimovic. This kind of sideswipe might seem a little childish and inconsequential on first hearing, but in a world where single-minded dedication and absolute focus on the task in hand is the only way to survive, the slightest slur, the mildest pricking of a supposed weak spot, can be the difference between success and failure.
The absence of Nemanja Vidic in the United defence, suspended after his dismissal in the Club World Cup in Japan, is an unexpected bonus for Mourinho's side, and particularly Ibrahimovic, whom the big Serbian was hoping to mark out of the game. But United remain favourites, as Mourinho was quick to point out when he treated the press to cake at the Inter training ground after the draw was made. He pointed out that his opponents were European Champions, with a "super coach" and a Ballon d'Or winner - however unworthy - in the side. My view is that he was trying to cast his side in the role of plucky underdogs in a bid to recreate the glorious night in 2004 when Porto upset all the odds at Old Trafford.
First shots fired, then, but there will be more to come after the winter festivities are over, for which Europe, in what is traditionally the darkest, most miserable time of the year, should be truly grateful. Cup bid all about timing David Beckham and Prince William are spearheading England's bid to host football's World Cup in 2018, based not only on the worldwide popularity of the Premier League but on what the Football Association's chairman Lord Triesman called "a broadcast friendly event, which means TV coverage in the right time zones," a statement which might have caused an eyebrow or two to be raised in the Emirates. Clearly, an English World Cup will be fine for Europe, but in the Emirates, an 8pm kick-off will mean a late(ish) night, starting at 11pm. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa will be slightly more "broadcast friendly" with mostly 10pm starts for the UAE, while the 2014 event in Brazil, will see games starts at 2am. True football fans, however, will cope with these kick-off times. In any case, it will be politics, as always, rather than time zones that decides England's bid, and red-eyed fans will tune in at whatever time. Sport must carry on Sport faces a whole set of new challenges in 2009, not least how it is to be financed as sponsorship becomes a much harsher commercial decision in recessionary times. Vodafone has already said it will end it's £4 million (Dh22m) a year deal to sponsor the England cricket team, while motor sport, as previously mentioned here, is making frantic efforts to cut costs. That will undoubtedly be an consistent theme as we enter the New Year, and sports people will have to realise that the vast rewards previously available to them may no longer be on offer. I hope they do, because we need the escape sport provides now more than ever. firstname.lastname@example.org