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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 16 September, 2014

The Sports Pages: some of the week’s best sports writing

With an ode to the healing power of football fanaticism and the incredible story of Rwanda’s national cycling team, this week’s round-up of the best writing the internet has to offer isn’t to be missed.

Jimmy Greaves:
Jimmy Greaves: "the epitome of cool and glamour" to a young John Crace.
Image: S&G/S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

1. “I was nine in 1966, and football-obsessed. What I was missing was a team to be passionate about. Neither of my parents was that interested in football, so there were no tribal loyalties to inherit. The field was completely clear; I could support anyone. But who? In May 1966 the sport pages were almost as full of World Cup previews as they would be now. And one man and one face stood out: Jimmy Greaves. Brilliant striker, stylishly Brylcreemed hair: here was the epitome of cool and glamour. I wanted to be Jimmy. I was Jimmy. I became Spurs.”

The Guardian’s John Crace (of Digested Read fame), in an extract from his new book, puts a touching spin on his football fanaticism, explaining how a humble love of Tottenham Hotspur FC has proven invaluable in his fight against depression.

2.“The three players — Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, who died Wednesday — combined to play 945 N.H.L. regular-season games, scoring only 20 goals while accumulating more than 2,000 penalty minutes. They dropped their gloves hundreds of times to fight, sometimes against one another, while meting out hockey’s unique brand of jaw-cracking justice.

The question emerging in hockey circles is not only whether something could have been done to save the lives of each man, but whether their deaths were related to their jobs as enforcers.”

With the death mid-week of Wade Belak taking the annual death toll among former NHL “enforcers” to three, the ethical questions posed by the persistence of the sport’s most idiosyncratic role are, as the NewYork Times’ John Branch reports, finally beginning to be confronted in earnest.

3. “It was the year everything seemed hopeful and the year when reality came crashing down like the top shelf of an overstuffed closet. It was the year when a little man dunked, when young Bears rapped and an old bear charged, when the hand of God reached out (and the referee missed it), when a ball rolled through the legs, when a genius set up behind the net. It was a year of folk heroes and comic book bad guys, a year when a gladiator dressed in black terrified the world.”

The ever-reliable Joe Posnanski goes the autobiographical route in this week’s Sports Illustrated, reminiscing about the storylines, both personal and sporting, that made his 1986 a year to remember.

4. “In 2007, a national cycling team was established, and shortly before Gasore began riding his taxi-bike the team set up its training camp twenty-five miles east of Sashwara, in the town of Ruhengeri. As he plied his trade routes, Gasore watched the helmeted racers whiz by, dazzling in their tight Team Rwanda jerseys and shorts—in the national colors of blue, yellow, and green—crouched over the curved handlebars of their slender road bikes, pedalling in close formation… For eight months, he trained alone, until, he said, ‘I told myself, ‘I can do it.””

Team Rwanda has yet to find its way into the Grand Tour peloton, but as Philip Gourevitch makes clear in this unmissable feature for the New Yorker, the team has become a affecting showcase of sport’s most enduring virtues.

5. “Even clicking onto this page indicates a level of mental imbalance that has to be considered worrying. After yesterday’s Sky-Sports-fuelled 15-hour minute-by-minute all-you-can-eat transfer buffet, there’s simply no call for it. Yesterday, rumours carried with them the thrilling prospect of near-instant gratification – something could pop up on Twitter at three and be completed by half past; this morning’s rumours offer, at best, a four-month turnaround.”

Simon Burnton‘s Rumour Mill, coping with the sudden abeyance of transfer window hysteria, takes a long, hard look at itself.

6. “Payton sternly told the sound technician that he didn’t want Brees’s snap counts to be audible. ‘It’s not just the words people could steal,’ Payton says. ‘It’s the cadence and the speed.’ A defensive coordinator for another NFC team says his video crew reviews telecasts and transcribes the presnap calls of opposing quarterbacks, and pairs those with the play. The information is analyzed to see what patterns can be discerned. Intonation and the difference between how a quarterback makes a dummy call versus a real one, the coach says, provide clues that can give his edge rushers a split-second head start.”

American football has always known for its elaborate offensive plays, but as Sports Illustrated’s Peter King points out, defensive coordination is where the sport’s real strategic innovation is occurring. Or as the New Orleans Saints’ coach, Sean Payton, would have it: “Football has become the battle of confusion.”

7. “After three tournaments in the southern hemisphere and three in the northern, we are back where we started in 1987, in New Zealand. And after that, in 2015, we go back to England, where we went in 1991. But if the appearance is of a needle stuck in a groove, it has jumped enough over the years to give real crackle to the soundtrack.”

Eddie Butler, in a preview of this year’s tournament for the Guardian, explains how the inaugural Rugby World Cup, held in 1987, changed international rugby union forever.

The Sports Week in pictures>

Sporting tweets of the week>

Poll: After Friday’s performance, can Ireland really hope to beat Russia next week?>

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