Courting the Technological Edge

This article featured on Al Jazeera English.

Tennis can often look like a simple battle. Two people stand on opposing sides armed with rackets, the winner decided by who has the physical strength, technique and mental calm to claim victory.

But if you scratch beneath the surface, there are a myriad of factors that come into play. And while there may be no substitution for talent or training, another T is playing an increasingly important part in giving players the crucial advantage – Technology.

Behind the scenes technological innovations are helping to drive athletes towards their limits and push opponents to theirs.

When people think of technology and tennis their mind might fly to Hawk-Eye, which revolutionised the game when it was formally introduced in 2005.

Unlike in cricket and football, where there have been hiccups and delays, Hawk-Eye proved a natural fit and added an extra dimension, and some synchronised clapping, to the game.

With a limited number of challenges allowed during a match, a wrong decision can prove costly in tight matches.

But while the Hawk-Eye adjudication system can effect a few points, it is the Hawk-Eye camera's ability to track balls which is creating a wealth of knowledge for the world’s top racket wielders.

Hidden away in a bunker in Wimbledon the IBM team are busy recording every point, serve, return, move made at the Grand Slams.

While county tennis players are hired by IBM to record information manually court-side, Hawk-Eye's player tracking devices provide additional information.

Analysing opponents

The data gathered is so rich it enables computers to search for patterns and extract a number of 'keys', which determine what a player has to do against their opponent to win a match.

In 2014, a new system has been tracking the aggressiveness of a player and how they play and respond to aggressive shots.

“The extra knowledge we get now is really important,” Dutch player Maikel Scheffers, a finalist in the wheelchair gentleman’s doubles, tells Al Jazeera English.

“We have a special video team who record matches for us and then give us a copy. They put a lot of work in and it’s amazing. You can ask them to find the exact point you want to look at, so all the deuces we had in a game.

“I particularly find recording myself in training helpful. As I can watch it every day and when I have a match it is fresh in my mind. I can visualise that technique.”

While knowledge is key, and in IBM speak, 'keys' are knowledge, equipment is also undergoing a technology revolution. This is particularly important in wheelchair tennis.

“There are many changes being made and more to come. Players are getting carbon fibre seats that are moulded to your body using 3D technology,” says Ronald Vink, Scheffers' doubles partner.

“The chairs are getting lighter and stronger. Some people have chairs made of magnesium. People are looking into sitting at different angles or with your knees higher up.”

With so much innovation, the ITF federation who govern wheelchair tennis have the tricky task of ensuring technological improvements for people with disabilities do not create an uneven playing field.

“There are lots of meetings at the moment, about things like the height of the chair. It is easier to serve higher up but then not everyone can do it,” says Scheffers.

“It is the same in every sport,” adds Vink. “The swimsuits in swimming, long-putters in golf. In wheelchair basketball there are lots of rules now."

“The world championships are taking place in South Korea and there is a team with lasers monitoring every chair to make sure it isn’t a mm too high. It is getting crazy like that.”

Racket IQ

In the 1960s and 1970s, changes to the material and design of tennis rackets saw companies produce rackets with more power and control. Now French equipment company Babolat has decided to give them a brain.

This racket contains sensors inside the handle that detect various information about your game; number of strokes, where the ball is hitting the racket, endurance levels, spin and power. This information is all directly transferred into an app on an iPhone.

At Wimbledon there are already a number of players using the racket including Ana Konjuh, the young Croatian who won her first ever grand slam match this year at Wimbledon.

While these players have a more refined source of data readily available to them after matches and training, it is too early to tell what difference this technology can make.

“For coaches this racket is very important – we don’t need to stand there ticking boxes,” said Tony Nadal, Rafael’s coach and uncle.

“If Rafael had this racket 10 years ago, I am sure he would have less problems in his tennis. At the US Open we plan to use this racket and hopefully we can win the tournament with this racket.”

Whether this is marketing talk or truth is unclear but the use of sensors to give players more information about their game is a step forward.

“I think the new Babolat racket technology is fantastic, it detects everything, spin-slice, power. It is also good for amateurs because they can track their progress and compare results with other amateurs and professionals," Japanese tennis player Yuichi said.

If the current technology is impressive, the future could be closer to science fiction.

'Connected' rackets provide useful information but they cannot detect whether the ball went in or out. However, if Wimbledon’s partners Babolat and Hawk-Eye join forces we could soon see an even smarter racket on the market, one that combines stats with the visuals that players find so helpful.

With sport increasingly lucrative, the Federer and Nadals of the technological world are competing in their own battle – to produce the technology that no player can live without.

The purists will argue that only the naturally gifted will triumph – but few players would want to be left out of the technological loop.

A Significant Friendly

England take to Wembley turf for the first time against tough opposition

Published in the Evening Standard

It takes Alex Scott a moment to remember when England last lost a competitive match. Under Head Coach Mark Sampson, England breezed through qualifying for the 2015 World Cup in Canada with 10 wins out of 10. Away from World Cup qualification, England recorded an impressive 4-0 victory over Sweden, a team ranked above Sampson’s side in the FIFA rankings.

“The last time we lost a competitive match must have been at the Euros last year. It’s something I haven’t really thought about,” the England and Arsenal defender told Standard Sport.

“I think we knew as players we should be beating the teams in our qualifying group but to score so many goals, and concede only one, we couldn’t do much better than that.”

While 2014 has been full of victories and goals, England’s women still have plenty to prove against Germany on Sunday after crashing out of the 2013 European Championships in the group stages. The early exit led to the departure of Hope Powell who had been in charge for 15 years.

Scott seems happy under the reign of Sampson, who has brought a fresh look to a team that often featured a familiar group of players.

“Mark has come in and changed the philosophy, the buzz around the team. We are going into games a lot more positive. He has freshened things up and there are some really exciting and young players coming through.”

One particularly young and exciting player is 21-year-old Fran Kirby, a striker for WSL 2 side Reading who scored 29 goals last season. Sampson’s bold decision to integrate a player from the second tier of the WSL looks to have paid off and Kirby was named Women of the Match on her debut against Sweden.

“If she keeps going the way she’s going, Fran has a big future in the women’s game. That’s the good thing about Mark, if you play well you are going to get a chance.,” says Scott.

Kirby and company will have to be in fine fettle if they are to upset the European Champions Germany – a team who also recorded the perfect World Cup qualifying campaign and are ranked World Number 2, five places above England.

Not only will the record crowd spur them on but also their poor record against their European rivals. England have never beaten Germany and the last time the teams met Germany denied England the 2009 European Championships title.

When asked to name Germany’s danger players, Scott is not sure where to start: “They are a force. There are so many dangerous players and they keep coming at you, they are relentless. Alexandra Pop is an amazing midfielder, she is so strong and technically gifted . They will be a real challenge.”

A victory on the pitch is important, but arguably a more important victory has already been achieved. The match against Germany marks the first time the England women’s team have played at Wembley and the capped 55,000 crowd is well above what anyone predicted.

“This is a special occasion and a great time for women’s football. When Great Britain played Brazil everyone thought it was Olympic fever but this match shows the interest is there and we need to put on a good show to keep fans coming back.”

Scott says playing at Wembley for England is a childhood dream but she will not be a bundle of nerves on the big occasion. The unofficial team DJ is more likely to be found dancing or making sure nerves don’t get the better of less experienced players. Scott believes the match is the ideal test before playing in front of big crowds in Canada next summer.  

Whether the players like it or not - the future of women’s football is tied to the results England achieve on the pitch.

“In order to capitalise on this support, we must do well in the World Cup next year. The media are now covering our matches and putting women’s football in people’s faces. We need to achieve results that keep us in the media so people can connect with us and follow the story and our progress.”

With clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester City investing more into their women’s sides, the top flight of women’s football finally has the competitive edge it has been lacking. An exciting climax to the 2014 season, which saw reigning Champions Liverpool edge to victory over Chelsea, has no doubt wetted the appetite for the fixture at Wembley. Unfortunately for Scott, all this competition means Arsenal no longer run away with the title year after year.

“Crowd figures are up across the board. Man City get good crowd averages and Arsenal do at Boreham Wood. But we need to make sure these 55,000 fans filter down into the women’s game.”

“We are role models and seeing us play makes young players realise they can make a career out of playing football. Many never looked at women’s football like this before, but now girls are believing they can become professional and make a salary out of the sport.”

Qatar's women win more than gold

London 2012 was the first time all nations included women in their teams
This article featured on Al Jazeera English.

The last time London hosted the Olympic Games it was 1948 and these words proudly hung over the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony.

The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.

These words were first spoken by the founder of the modern games Baron de Coubertin. Since then they have been paraphrased by mums and dads across the world when dealing with overzealous children.

But is it really the taking part that counts?

Try telling the most successful Olympian - American swimmer Michael Phelps - this and he would playfully splash water at you. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s reaction is likely to be equally amusing.

But perhaps Coubertin's words of encouragement shouldn’t be so quickly mocked.

Because Olympic champions are only made if they are allowed to take part.

On Sunday August 5th, I met three inspiring young women on their way home after being knocked out in the early stages of the Olympics. But there was not a tear of disappointment nor look of resignation between them.

These athletes had already won something more valuable than an Olympic gold, or even eight – the chance to take part.

64 years on from London’s last Olympics, Qatar had sent four female athletes to the Games for the first time. In fact, London 2012 was the first time all nations had included female members.

Baron de Coubertin’s words would not have been out of place at Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony.

While talking to sprinter Noor Al-Malki, swimmer Nada Arakji and table tennis player Aia Mohamed it became clear how important their presence at the Games was.

These three friends – who proudly donned their maroon Qatari tracksuits and spoke of missing the Olympic Village – were the real history makers of the Games.

And by being part of the greatest sporting competition in the world - they are blessed. They have already fulfilled ambitions that were dreams to their mother's and grandmother's generation.

Noor, Nada and Aia symbolise a change in attitude toward’s women competing at the highest levels in their conservative nation. And with only 52 years between them they have their whole sporting careers ahead.

But now their Olympics are over, will they receive the support needed to one day win gold? Or are they just figureheads to appease the IOC and equal rights groups?

Although they wouldn’t be drawn on whether they faced discrimination or barriers during their journey to the Games, one thing they openly shared was a delight at being able to inspire peers and future generations.

“I was so proud at being able to represent my country. It felt great being there and entering the stadium” said 50m freestyle swimmer Nada Arakji.

“Being the first Qatari female swimmer at the Olympics will encourage younger generations to take up the sport.”

Sporting ambition

Quite understandably, at no stage did table tennis player Aia Mohamed feel the Olympics was a right of passage.

“The Olympics was in my heart but I didn’t realise I would be here. It is like a dream come true. I want younger players to live what we have just lived,” Aia said with emotion.

“It is every athletes dream to reach the Olympics and thank god I achieved that dream, and hopefully I will be there in Rio in 2016.”

Qatar - the host of the 2022 Football World Cup – is busy developing itself as a sporting cultural hub.

Despite losing out on the bid for the 2020 Olympics, Qatar will pursue the Games in the future.

“It is really important to host events like the World Cup because people from other countries will come and they will know we can do it. We have all the facilities in place and Qatar will bring lots of new things to the event,” said Aia.

It is hard to argue that Qatar does not have the resources to entertain the world but question marks still hang over their attitude to women pursuing Olympic success.

However, at such times as these criticism is unfair. By bringing women to the Olympics, Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia have taken huge strides forward. They have been working closely with the IOC and there's no reason to believe this conversation will breakdown.

All three athletes I met were vocal (very vocal) about the huge amount of support they receive from friends, family, coaches, teachers, authorities and other athletes.

“Qatar supports us. Qatar is proud of us,” says 100m runner Noor Al-Malki.

So what next for these girls who quietly disappear from the Games without the hysteria that surrounds Michael Phelps, Ye Shiwen or Usain Bolt?

Will they one day stand on the podium celebrating gold instead of wondering whether they will be allowed to take part?

Yes, this small, young crop of female athletes have won their first battle – but the battle on the track, in the pool or by the table tennis table has only just begun.

Winning - that has to be the next step.

Dawn of the super athlete

These days, the technique which enables Portuguese footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, to take the perfect free-kick is no longer solely dissected by football pundits but also by scientists, biomechanics and engineers. Every twitch of muscle, transference of energy and body posture is analysed by sensors and computers so that we can build a greater understanding of what it takes to make the ultimate athlete.

Designed By Jordan (JHecz) Crook For the Redbox Media Team

This article featured on the BBC World website. 

In the 1950s, the introduction of fiberglass poles saw pole-vaulters leap to new heights.

In the 1970s, the replacement of wood in tennis rackets with a combination of fibreglass and graphite saw tennis players smash former limits.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, swimmers wearing a new bodysuit sent world records tumbling.

Over the last few decades, technological advancements in sport have been moving the benchmark of human limitations. Some of them, like the examples above, are easy to understand: the poles became more flexible; the rackets helped accuracy; and the suits reduced drag – so much so that they were later banned.

But while these advances may have been game changing at the time, a new era of technology has arrived that seeks to lift the lid off the secrets to our biomechanics and help push both professional and amateur athletes to their limit.

In every sport, and at every level, companies are now supplying equipment, clothing and gadgets in a bid to revolutionise the way professionals and amateurs train, compete and recuperate.

If it wasn’t for 3D technologies, Australian skeleton racer, John Farrow, may never have competed in this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

In 2011, whilst training, Farrow suffered a horrific knee injury which left him with a nerve paralysis condition called foot drop. After initially relying on a rigid carbon foot-brace made with friends, Farrow’s run-off times greatly improved after his doctor designed an ankle foot orthotic (ATO) based on a 3D model of his foot and leg.

“The ATO was more dynamic and gave me a fluid movement. It was comfortable and my performance improved greatly. It also allowed me to train better in sprints and at the gym in the lead up to the Games,” says Farrow, who finished 17th at his debut Games in Sochi.

Before Sochi, Farrow also underwent 3D body scanning to ensure his clothing was perfectly moulded to his body.

Although the difference clothing makes is minor, small margins increasingly matter in elite sport. And sports brands are doing everything to persuade customers that they can give them that winning edge.

One doesn't fit all

Professor of biomechanics at Brunel University, Bill Baltzopoulos, uses 3D technology specifically to map human motion and help athletes gain that split second advantage and at the same time protect them from injury. He has welcomed many sprinters, including Jamaican Olympic champion, Usain Bolt, to his lab.

“In the field of research, these 3D models tell us what factors contribute to Bolt’s performance. What makes him unique is his build and how it enables him to exert a huge force over a short period of time and maintain it,” Baltzopoulos told BBC World.

“Technology has advanced so much that you can measure whatever you want, but it is how you incorporate this into the athlete’s regime that’s important."

Baltzopoulos and his team combine sensor technology with 3D software to measure movement in the athletes’ body against the forces that are applied to equipment, such as a treadmill.

When it comes to improving performance, Balzopoulos believes this kind of real-time feedback is vital as it allows coaches to alter a training session mid-way through to suit their athlete’s needs.

“Customisation is the key. Everyone has a different running style – from sprinters to long-distance runners. There are different stresses applied, so to be able to provide an optimal shoe [for example] you need to understand the way these people run,” he says.

David Epstein, author of the Sports Gene, agrees. “Every individual has completely inimitable biology and psychology so, for peak performance, they would need to have unique [requirements]. When we fail to understand the kind of training people with differing muscle types need, we lose them to injury.”

“There is no cookie cutter training that works for everyone, just as medical genetics has shown that there is no single medication that works the same for everyone,” says Epstein.

In recent years, a growing consumer appetite for customisation has seen sports brands embrace technology in order to creating the perfect footwear for individuals. While it is already possible to go online or into a shop to choose the colour and design of shoes, 3D modelling and printing technology is now being used to mould and shape trainers for customers to create the definitive bespoke design.

Although professional athletes have greater access to use and trial these kinds of technologies, Susan Olivier, vice president of consumer goods and retail at Dassault Systèmes, believes 3D modeling techniques will soon be readily available to the public.

“The cost and size of 3D scanning is going down dramatically. I can imagine in three to five years that before shopping we will visit a booth that scans our feet and other body parts. Then we can take the scan to our favourite sports outlet who will be able to design equipment, clothing and footwear to our specifications,” says Olivier.

Sensing change

This thirst for real-time feedback has propelled a rise in sensor technology which Olivier Ribet, vice president of the high tech industry at Dassault Systèmes, says has dramatically improved over the last two to three years and is accelerating.

It is now common for sensors to be placed in shoes and on bikes to track statistics such as distance, incline, speed and power. One recent breakthrough has seen French equipment company Babolat release a smart tennis racket, which uses sensors to give feedback on your game, including the power of shots, variety of shots and level of spin.

“The difference that sensors of this kind make to performance will probably be around 0.1%. But these margins can still be significant over a long match or race. It won’t turn a mediocre athlete into a world class one. It is more incremental than that,” says Ross Tucker, an exercise physiologist and high performance sports consultant.

Technological developments do not always originate from the sports industry itself.

Inventions created for the military, aerospace companies and Formula One are often adapted for the sports industry. When Formula One teams invent a new material, it has been used to design safer equipment and helmets for sportsmen and women.

Although technology has helped make helmets more durable, the last couple of years has seen the media highlight the dangers of playing high impact sports such as ice hockey and American Football.

In August 2013, the National Football League, paid a $765 million settlement deal to thousands of football players who claimed the league hid the truth about head injuries, such as concussion and long-term brain damage. In the hope of minimising damage, specialised helmets with real-time sensors have been developed that track knocks to the head and send alerts to a device such as a smart phone.

Nobody can predict just how much more technology will improve performance and safety.

“Some people think one day we will swallow a pill and this pill will be in our body forever and used to track health and movement," says Rimet.

“Then there are those who say we will put a patch over or even under the skin to track changes contextually and in real time. Then there is the less extreme idea that we will wear a necklace or band which will process information very quickly and tell us exactly what pressure the body is under.”

With technological developments occurring at such a rapid rate in the sports industry, it is unclear how much more they can improve our fundamental biomechanics. From the American runner, Thomas Burke’s 100 metres in 12 seconds in 1896 to Bolt’s record breaking 9.58 seconds in 2012, who knows how many more milliseconds sprinters will shave off that time another century on.

As both professional and everyday athletes race towards perfection, technology sprints alongside helping to develop devices that could push them a little bit further.

Those chasing Bolt, or on the road to recovery like Farrow, will take every advantage they can get.

Afghanistan sport: Closing the Gap

Cricket leads the way as Afghan sport grows by the day 
This article featured on Al Jazeera English.

“It was a well deserved decision but our aim is not associate membership but full ICC membership”

If any statement could capture why Afghanistan sport is flourishing, this might be it. 

Afghanistan Cricket Board CEO Noor Muhamma Murad is not about to get excited about associate membership - he wants more. 

Considering the recent accomplishments of the Afghanistan cricket team, he is well within his rights to be aiming high. 

Since the overthrow of the Taliban, sports such as cricket, football and rugby have been growing at a phenomenal rate. A nation banned from playing most sports between 1996-2001, has entered the competitive fray with a refusal to look back and a glint in the eye. 

2013 saw a number of sporting triumphs. 

In September, the nation's football team won their first major tournament with a 2-0 victory over India in the South Asian Football Federation Championship. The result put Afghanistan on the football map and positive headlines emanated from the country for many days.

At the Ballon d'Or ceremony, the Afghanistan Football Federation received the FIFA Fairplay award for its work developing grassroots football, building infrastructure and nurturing a professional league.

An international trophy boosts football’s popularity but it still lags behind cricket – the sparkling jewel in the nation’s sporting crown.

The sport became popular amongst Afghan refugees in Pakistan during Taliban rule and it was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, where the Afghanistan Cricket Federation was born. The conservative attire and manner of the game helped convince the Taliban to accept the sport in 2000, a year before allied troops arrived. Cricket has certainly made the most of its head start.

Already part of the T20 World Cup furniture, Afghanistan made history in October 2013 by defeating Kenya to qualify for the Cricket World Cup for the first time. They will join Australia and England in Pool A at the 2015 tournament in Australia and New Zealand.

The victory sparked scenes of celebrations throughout the nation. More than 24,000 cricket fans gathered peacefully in Khost province to welcome their sporting heroes. In this video another side to Afghanistan is shown – one that is centred on unity, not war and destruction.

All levels of the sport are developing. This month saw the Under-19 team beat cricket powerhouse Australia in the ICC World Cup. After reaching the quarter-finals they were knocked out by another superpower South Africa.  Not bad for kids.

“Cricket in Afghanistan is more than a game, it is a tool for national unity and hope for youth in Afghanistan. Qualifying for the World Cup will give us a new sporting identity and we can prove we are a talented nation,” Noor Muhammad Murad told Al Jazeera English. 

While Afghanistan is a huge nation punctuated by clans and tribes, when a cricket bat or football is thrown into the mix, divisions are marked only by the team you fall on.

The CEO of the Afghanistan Rugby Federation, Asad Ziar, believes there are no limits to what sport can achieve in the country.

“Its intrinsic values such as teamwork, fairness, discipline and respect are understood all over the world and can be utilised in the advancement of solidarity and social cohesion,” Ziar told Al Jazeera English.

“There are no dangerous areas when it comes to spreading sport, in fact there is no sect or groups against the development of sports in any part of the country.”

With the ARF launching in 2011, rugby in one of the nation’s youngest sports. However, Ziar and his colleagues have already achieved an outstanding amount.

At the 2013 West Asia Rugby Sevens in Dubai, the Afghan Rugby team defeated the UAE and Lebanon. In a nation where travel is unfamiliar and difficult for many of its inhabitants, organising the trip to Dubai for his players was an impressive feat alone.

“I received hundreds of messages through cell phone, emails and social media from around the globe which really was a proud moment. We got the runner-up shield in this tournament and it was the first international victory by an Afghan team in the field of rugby,” said Ziar.

The female factor

In addition to developing the national team, and spreading the word of rugby around his nation, Ziar and the ARF have taken the bold decision of introducing rugby to girls.  

In June 2013, Ziar gathered 600 girls at a Kabul school and distributed leaflets about rugby before providing some introductory sessions.

Unsurprisingly, the cultural complications when it comes to developing women’s sport are a minefield.

“Promoting women’s rugby requires a lot more from us, since there are no private grounds for rugby yet and it is not possible that the women side should be trained in public,” says Ziar.

“We need secured and proper facilities for the development of women’s rugby. When we have these facilities we will start working on the development of a women’s team.”

It might surprise some that Afghanistan does have a women’s cricket and football team up and running. This is a huge (perhaps bigger than huge) development considering social factors and the infancy of competitive sport since Taliban rule.

Most of the players draw from the Afghan capital Kabul where there is a more liberal attitude towards women.

“We developed a women cricket development strategy in 2013. Training camps have been conducted in five provinces and we are planning to participate in the Asia Challenge Cup for the first time in our history,” said Noor Muhammad Murad.

One woman who has played a vital part in encouraging women to pick up bat and ball is Diana Barakzai. She is the cricket captain of the national team, a qualified ICC coach and the Women Cricket Development Manager of the Afghanistan Cricket Board.

“I got into cricket in 2009 because I wanted to bring Afghan women into the structure of cricket and sports,” Barakzai tells Al Jazeera English.

“The future of cricket is quite brilliant. If the resources are used properly for women’s cricket, it should have a good future.”

Another exciting development for Afghan sport is the planned introduction of cricket onto the school curriculum. If the Ministry of Education approves the new programme, the training of school teachers will begin in April 2014.

Physically strong and competitive-minded, there is no shortage of sporting talent in Afghanistan. However, the nation struggles from a lack of qualified coaches and sporting expertise. 

“The international sporting community has always helped the development of sport in Afghanistan but we are yet to witness an Afghan with graduate or postgraduate degree in the field of sport or sport development. I think for long-term development and strategies we need some professional Afghan sport development professionals,” says Rugby chief Ziar.

Considering the absence of sport from educational institutions and the turmoil of war, it is remarkable (or perhaps simply brilliant) how far Afghanistan sport has come over the last few years.

One can only hope peace and democracy blossom in a similar vein when NATO troops leave in 2015. Perhaps sport can help it to do so.

“I do not make judgments about an individual’s participation in the war, but simply hope to encourage young people to do something positive, fun and competitive, in the hope that they will avoid becoming part of the violence and avoid the temptation of drugs,” says Ziar.

“It is not just the sporting international community who should take an interest. If the international community as a whole want peace and stability in Afghanistan they must support the development of sport by any means they can.”

Brighton fans tired of homophobic chants

While Brighton fight for promotion, fans fight for respect 
This article was published on Al Jazeera English.

Sitting in the Championship play-off places, the next month will be pivotal for Brighton and Hove Albion football club.

A club that former Chelsea player Gus Poyet lifted to Championship promotion in 2011 are just five wins away from joining the Premier League big-time.

With a new 30,000 seater stadium, an attractive playing style and the highest pie sales in the country (and second best pie – after Arsenal), Brighton look to be on the up.

Could life get any better? Well one group of Brighton supporters think it could.

While Poyet and the boys will be 110% committed to what happens on the pitch, their biggest supporters club – Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters’ Club – is highlighting another battle.

The battle to rid homophobic language from the terraces.

Together with The Gay Football Supporters’ Network (GFSN), the BHASC have been monitoring the homophobic language used against their fans over the 2012/13 season. Their report published in April found Brighton fans were subjected to homophobic abuse by at least 72% of their opponents.

These chants ranged from ‘We can see you holding hands,’ to ‘Do you take it up the a***?’ and ‘You’re just a town full of fag***s.’

Banter or abuse?

While the fight against racism has intensified over the last few years, the battle against homophobia (or more accurately homophobic language) has been far quieter.

"The subject isn’t comfortable. If you took out any word that refers to gay and insert the word that refers to colour, all of a sudden you realise that it’s not actually banter," secretary of the BHASC Sarah Watts told Al Jazeera.

Brighton - a city known for its large lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community - has been on the receiving end of homophobic chants for years.

"The reason we put this report together was because not enough was being done. Our letters to clubs weren’t really getting us anywhere. We don’t want to cure the world’s ills, we just want people to talk about the issue," Watts told me.

But in a Football League which lacks an openly gay footballer, manager or coach – talking about the issue is not just the answer, but the problem.

In fact, while speaking to Brighton’s Chief Executive Paul Barber in his modern office overlooking the AMEX pitch, it turns out the issues raised from the report are extremely complex.

"The emails I’ve received since the report have varied. I’ve had people saying 'I’m gay and I’m offended,' 'I’m gay and not bothered by it', and others who worry it makes Brighton more of a target," Barber told Al Jazeera.

Almost every question I asked Barber was riddled with complexity. Is all homophobic language unacceptable, is it harmless fun, are people overreacting, are people underreacting, how do you stop anti-social behaviour?

Opinions are sure to vary but this hasn’t stopped Brighton and the FA taking a stance against the use of homophobic language. The FA send letters to every team in the league reminding them that homophobic abuse is an offence.

But despite these endeavours the BHASC have found some clubs and their stewards do not take sufficient action against perpetrators.

"Brighton can’t make demands of other clubs but the Sussex police are doing a good job at targeting fans at the AMEX... Quite often our letters to clubs get ignored. And some clubs have bad stewards that don’t respond to the abuse," says Watts.

When I ask Barber if the message could best be made by the Brighton players, he is cautious.

"Footballers have not tended to come out and openly say they are gay. They might be the last bastions of society to feel they can do that. There is a pressure on footballers to lead campaigns, but whether they are gay or not it is hard for a young man to take the weight of that responsibility."

It is an understandable but frustrating answer. With fans worrying Brighton will become a target and footballers fearful of speaking out - the battle against homophobic language is far trickier than Brighton’s current Premier League bid.

Sarah Watts is right, the issue needs to be spoken about. It needs to be discussed and debated - by fans, players and the football authorities. Even if the conclusion is that nothing more can be done or the language is doing no harm.

Brighton’s issue should be publicised. Because if we accept homophobic chants against them in the Championship, will we accept chants against them at a Premier League club? And if we do what kind of message are we sending to the rest of the world when these words are broadcast?

Both Barber and Watts believe education is the solution. But punishment might have its place too.

Blackburn player Colin Kazim-Richards was investigated for allegedly making a homophobic gesture towards Brighton fans during a match in February. The punishment doled out to players and fans found guilty of these actions will send a strong message.

Barber is eager to point out that most football supporters are good people who just love the game - that trouble is usually generated from a small pocket of fans.

"We should balance raising awareness and creating a sense that everyone is doing it. I have watched dozens of football matches and the amount of vile abuse has been minimal – but if you read the papers you would think it was inherent and prevalent all the time."

Indeed we should. But progress doesn’t come from looking at the positives. Progress comes from open discussion.

And when it comes to sexuality and football – this is easier said than done.

Thierry Henry reminds us why it is a beautiful game

Henry has brought his cheeky smile back to the Premier League

Anyone who finds themselves complaining about the hype surrounding Thierry Henry’s return to the English Premier League had better drag out last month’s papers.

There they will find the football news they had grown to love, one dominated by scandal, racist remarks and court cases.

Recent portrayals of the English game have focused on the ugly side of football, the side with a flawed, pitted complexion and a hint of distrust in the eye.

The Luis Suarez racism case, on the back of racist allegations involving England captain John Terry, made us turn to the back pages for all the wrong reasons.

While they weren’t cases the media should ignore, they were cases most of us wished never existed in the first place. They left us reflecting on whether it was possible to heal football’s many maladies.

But then along came the New Year and shortly after that Thierry Henry.

Few would have foreseen the return of Henry to the English Premier League.

Arsenal’s leading goalscorer and the man who was instrumental in guiding them to an unbeaten season in 2004 was back. It was a blessing for Arsenal, and the Premier League, as legends rarely retrace their steps.

In December, Henry fought back the tears as a bronze statue was erected of him outside the Emirates in his honour - few would have envisioned him playing inside the stadium just a month later.

Firing next shot

However, on a two-month loan from the New York Red Bulls, his enduring love for the Gunners dragged him back.

If the fairytale wasn’t yet complete, it soon would be.

On Monday, Henry popped on an Arsenal shirt, leapt off the bench and scored within ten minutes of his return in front of the Emirates crowd. The goal gave Arsenal a place in the fourth round of the FA Cup but it meant so much more than that.

Here was an amazing story that reminded us how beautiful football could be.

Surely even those who dislike Arsenal could not have suppressed a slight smile on seeing the jubilance of Henry as he scored on his return.

The occasion signified everything that is right with the game: long-lasting talent, nostalgia, passion, a player’s love for a club and a club’s love for a player. And let’s not forget those Arsenal fans.

Gooners (as they are known) can be an outspoken and arrogant bunch but they celebrated Henry’s goal simply because they love the man and the man loves them back.

It is as close to a love story as we get in football.

Paul Scholes did not manage to score on his return to Manchester United but his story is also one to celebrate.

With Man United struggling for midfielders due to an injury crisis, Scholes’ loyalty to his side and particularly to Alex Ferguson encouraged him back into the fold.

Neither Henry nor Scholes returned to the English Premier League with capes on their back or wearing a pair of blue tights but to Arsenal and United fans they are superheroes.

They are pure footballers who play for the love of the game, the love of their club and the love of the fans. Both players also have done their best to keep their head down and out of trouble in the past.

We welcome them back with open arms and over the top headlines because the ugly side of football was getting boring.

It is time to reflect on football’s more beautiful side.

The reaction to Henry’s goal is overblown, ridiculously romantic, and not quite worthy of a Hollywood script…yet.

But what would you prefer: A smiley Henry on the back page or another picture of a surly looking Suarez?

If it is Suarez you, my friend, are a spoil sport.

The Luis Suarez ban had to be harsh

A portrait of Luis Suarez in black and white  

Due to racism scandals around Luis Suarez and John Terry, football players have once again been in the media spotlight this week for reasons other than their sporting prowess.

On Tuesday 20th December, Suarez of Liverpool fame was handed an eight-match ban by the FA after being found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.

On Wednesday 21st December, the focus shifted to Chelsea’s John Terry, who was charged over allegations he racially abused QPR’s Anton Ferdinand during a tense match on October 23rd.

As Liverpool learn to live without Suarez, Terry will sweat it out on and off the pitch before a West London court decides his fate in February.

At first glance, it would be easy to mark this as a depressing time for football. However, if these cases are dealt with in the right way it could do the world of football a lot of good.

Suarez's harsh punishment and the seriousness of the charges around the England captain suggest the ugly side of football is no longer being swept under the FA's dusty carpet.

Football players are being increasingly targeted for their behaviour and, one hopes, this is primarily because of the message it sends to the fans.

As role models the actions of footballers, and the reactions to their actions, send powerful messages to football fans.

The fight against racism or any other abuse has to start with the players as they are in the limelight.

Although the extent of racism in the terraces is unknown, general abuse in rife.    

All we need to do is look at the way Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean has been treated by the clubs supporters to see how far behind football is in the decency stakes compared to other sports.

Passion has often been used as an excuse for awful behaviour from fans. Of course Rovers fans swear at Kean from the stands, travel overseas to hold up signs saying they want him out, jeer at him as he enters the ground – they are just being passionate about their club!

Human element

While not all football fans behave badly, foul language will be as abundant on the terraces on Boxing Day as alcohol for many of us on Christmas day.

BBC journalist Phil McNulty poignantly writes this week in his blog about Steve Kean, "The argument goes that supporters pay their money and have the right to air their opinion, but even seasoned observers felt unease at an individual coming under such a barrage. It is called the human element."

The human element is sadly something that doesn't always mesh well with football.

In the 1980s, when hooliganism was rife and England football fans were feared around Europe, many accepted the terrible behaviour of our fans.

For too long people associated with football, whether players or fans, have been able to get away with behaviour that would not be accepted in the office or on the street.

This is a fact the English FA, and the British media, have awoken to over the last couple of years. 

More than ever before managers are being fined for criticising officials, players for breaking club protocol, Sky Sports' pundits sacked for sexist comments and FIFA execs banned from the game for... well, all sorts.

Through bans, fines and sackings, a stricter moral code is not just being sent to football players and administrators but to unruly fans. The key message being sent is: respect.

It is something that critics of Steve Kean should maybe mull over their mulled win before staging their next ‘Kean Out’ protest.

And also something Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish should also mull over his mulled wine before he leaps to Suarez’s defence... again.

Because the message of the FA’s lengthy punishment for Suarez is far greater than the effect it has on Liverpool’s Champions League aspirations.

An eight-game ban is a powerful message to any football player or fan who believes that racist terms should be used, ever.

Spies in our midst?

As someone who has attended England international matches, the language that circulates stadiums is shocking. A yob culture does still exist and it is one that can involve homophobia, sexism and racism. 

The news that Tottenham Hotspur stewards plan to wear headcams at tomorrow night’s game against Chelsea to monitor "foul, abusive, homophobic or racist language" is a drastic action, but one that should be taken.

Racism is ugly and not what the majority of fans want linked to their sport, but taking nothing away from the seriousness of the issue, there are lots of ugly things associated with the beautiful game.

However, football organisations and the media are now sending messages that this ugliness is no longer acceptable, and about time too.