Why we will always love Jonny

As we prepare for the rugby world cup without the world’s greatest living Englishman, I thought I would bring back some fond memories of the 2007 tournament. I covered it for the Sunday Times from deep in the heart of French rugby-playing territory. Here is a piece about Jonny Wilkinson, whom I will always consider one of our greatest ever sporting heroes. I am so happy Leo watched him kick that drop goal in 2003. OK so he was only four months old, but he swears he remembers it…

This time last week I had a terrible hangover. I woke up at 6am wondering why my head was throbbing. Then I remembered.
“We won,” I said to my husband.
“I want to read the French papers,” he replied.
“I want to marry Jonny Wilkinson,” I said.
“I do too,” he said.
That’s the thing about Jonny. Everyone adores him. My husband doesn’t even mind me having a crush on him. He is Jonny. He is the greatest living Englishman.
Never mind his girlfriend and his mum cheering him on, the rest of the nation is behind him too. And most of the female population would like to be on top of him.
I have noticed a change in my friends over the past few weeks. These are professional women of a certain age. But they are acting like teenagers. A freelance writer and mother in her 40s who shall remain nameless, spends most of her days sending me links to gay sporting websites where, once you get past the more obscene items, there are pictures of Jonny without his shirt on.
What does she love about him so much? “It’s the facial expression, although the bottom is lovely, it’s that come hither look and we’ll have some fun that I adore,” she says. “He is so incredibly private and low-key and this gives him an air of mystery and thus obviously more sex appeal. The exact opposite of those talent-less celebrity seekers, Jordan and Posh types.”
A doctor friend of mine has five children, so plenty of choice for screensavers there. What picture does she have on her computer? Jonny taking a penalty kick. Why I asked her? “Don’t ask stupid questions,” was her response.Marry me
But it’s not only sad middle-aged women like me who adore him. A friend of mine’s fourteen-year-old daughter loves him, as does her grandmother. Jonny’s appeal is cross-generational and universal.
Although I wouldn’t mind taking him home myself, he is the kind of boy I would be delighted if one of my daughter’s came home with. He would be a model son-in-law, polite and helpful around the house. He’s a nice boy with good manners and sense of fair play. When he wins he is as gracious as he is when he loses. When he lies on the ground it is not because he thinks he can convince the ref to give him a penalty but because someone has tried to take him out.
Some say he’s boring, that he’s too obsessed. “How do I meet him?” panted one friend during the England/France game. “By disguising yourself as a rugby ball,” responded another. People say he’s a rugby-playing anorak and deeply dull due to his focus and single-mindedness. I don’t agree. I love that ambition and determination. It makes him even more attractive. This is a man who wants to be the best in the world at kicking a ball over a post. Trivial? Dull? Maybe to some, but not to me and most of the female population of England.
In fact to us he is a super-hero. Jonny comes in at the last minute and scores the drop-goal to win the World Cup. Jonny tackles men four times his size and stops them dead in their tracks. But unlike most super-heroes he doesn’t wear his tights outside his trousers or a cape. Instead he wears an English rose and looks divine. And he takes the pressure so well. “Poor lad,” said a lady I met from Yorkshire recently. “He’s got the whole world on his shoulders.”Jonny
He is as brave as a super-hero. What must it feel like to walk onto a rugby pitch and know that the opposing team has only one strategy: Get Jonny. Obviously this is a strategy the female population of England can relate to, even if it is a tad unsporting.
It is true to say that he wouldn’t be such a hero if he wasn’t so, well, pretty. And pretty is not a word you would normally use to describe rugby players. But he is not poofy. He is no Percy Montgomery, constantly flicking his locks around, he is no Ginola, posing in L’Oreal advertisements. With Jonny you get a no-nonsense lad who looks like a model. What’s not to like? He is not using rugby to get his own TV show. That doesn’t interest him. He’s unlikely to have his own range of foul-smelling fragrance. Jonny has no sarongs, no celebrity girlfriends, no stupid hairstyles, no tattoos. He’s just a proper bloke with drive, ambition and determination to win for himself, his team and his country. That and a cute butt, obviously.


Rugby versus football, a game of two halves

At the end of a very stressful and long football season, I think I have stumbled upon a universal truth.

Everything that is wrong with football could be corrected by adopting the ethics, morality and general good-bloke-ish-ness of rugby. (Cue picture of Jonny Wilkinson). images

This is never more obvious than when you channel hop between the Six Nations and the Premier League. I was actually astounded by the contrast. Think about what REALLY annoys you when you’re watching football. First and foremost, stupid refs getting things wrong. How does rugby deal with this? If there is a potentially dodgy decision on the rugby field there is an instant replay and the ref makes a decision based on that replay. He doesn’t make a decision based on what the home crowd wants, or what his myopic Liverpool fan of a linesman has seen, or thinks he has seen. The fact that football rules say you can go BACK and look at the replay once the match is over is just ridiculous. Either you have video evidence or you don’t.

Second really annoying thing about football: the diving and writhing around in agony if a player is so much as looked at. What happens on the rugby pitch? They are ignored, and left to deal with it. The game is not stopped unless it is a serious injury. And actually in rugby it probably would be a serious injury because rugby does not attract the namby pamby theatrical types football seems to favour.
Third really annoying thing about football? Time added on. or so-called “Fergie time” as it used to be known. Ridiculous. If play is stopped just do what they do on the rugby pitch and stop the clock. Having added time is open to such a lot of abuse. Again football gives the ref the power to dictate the game. And how many refs do you really trust?

Fourth really infuriating thing? Much as we sometimes loathe them, arguing with the ref is JUST NOT RIGHT. Shut up, accept the decision and play on. You never see a rugby player harassing the ref. So undignified.

If we had more rugby-style morality and rules in football, the players might be more popular and the game have a little more credibility. As things stand most people when asked about Premier League players say they are spoilt, overpaid and generally not very nice (apart from Frank Lampard that is, cue picture of Super Frank).images-1
Rant over. Enjoy the end of the football season. And next year, watch a bit more rugby.

As my father-in-law always says: “Rugby is a game for yobs played by gentlemen, football is a game for gentlemen played by yobs.”

The French role model (again)

Just after Christmas we went to a party at the home of a French family we are quite friendly with. Like us, they have three children aged between nine and 13. Unlike us, these children look and behave like they have leapt straight from the pages of a ‘how to bring up perfect children’ manual.
When we arrived, instead of cowering in the corner in their hoodies like any self-respecting English teenager the three of them stood in line to kiss us bonjour. They were dressed immaculately, in the kind of clothes that my girls would refuse to even try on if bribed, their hair was washed and nicely combed. They spent half the party handing food around to the guests and the other half performing a perfect recital. The little girl is already a Grade 4 pianist and she is only 11. My 13 year old is still struggling with Grade 1. Their son, aged nice, plays the flute perfectly and the oldest girl is a cellist.
I left the party deeply depressed. As if dealing with perfect French women isn’t enough, we now have to compete with their impeccable offspring too.
I remember when we lived in France being endlessly furious with our children who would run around restaurants like they were football pitches, while their French contemporaries sat at the table calmly eating their snails and probably discussing the benefits or otherwise of existentialism. There was one particularly bad occasion when Olivia was only about four and we were told by the neighbouring table that our daughter was clearly too young to be taken out to lunch. I think they felt the same way about her parents.
There is now a book out called something like ‘French children don’t throw food’ that purports to teach us all how to bring up perfect little people who will instinctively know how to tie a scarf and shrug in that Gallic manner. I do have it, but have not yet dared read it for fear that it is all too late. Maybe I was supposed to tie them to a chair with my scarf at an early age to get them used to sitting still?
Anyway they are all off to boarding school in a few weeks’ time, that marvellous British institution that will teach them, if nothing else, how to wield a lacrosse stick and not be a sneak.
Admirable qualities some other nations could do with a bit more of. Even if they can sit still at lunch.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

I want a six-pack

Earlier this week I was chatting to one of the trainers at my gym about six-packs.
“I hate this flab,” I told him, grabbing my mid-riff. “I want it gone. I want a six-pack like Fernando Torres.”
“If you come here three times a week, you will have one in a month,” he told me.
I didn’t believe him, of course. But it’s worth a try.
So we began on September 26th and he assures me that by October 26th I will be a lean, mean fighting six-pack bearing machine.
Of course I don’t really want to look like Fernando, but I would dearly love SOME definition, even if it’s only as hint. The fat melting went some of the way (see previous blog) but this is the next stage.
We have had two sessions so far and at the moment my abs hurt pretty much every time I breathe. It is gruelling, hideous in fact, and time goes soooo slowly. Baba, as the trainer is called, tends to do three sets of 25 on each exercise. So you start off something pretty much unbearable such as squat jumps with weights knowing you have 50 more to come. Then just as you’re thinking ‘this isn’t too bad’ he throws in a minute’s worth of mountain climbers or some other torture.
“You will have a six-pack in a month,” he tells me to motivate me when I plead for mercy. It does help, as do mental images of other six-packs such as the one pictured here.
You will be relieved to hear that I won’t be posting pictures of my own lack of six-pack or indeed any progress.
But if, on October 26th, I have a wash-board stomach, you will be the first to see it.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Sporting loyalties

Whenever people ask me where I come from, I say England. This is of course not strictly true, but the truth would take far too long, and when people ask you where you’re from, as is the case when they ask you how you are, they don’t really want to know the truth, they just want to have enough information to put you in a certain compartment in their brain. And I am quite happy to fit into their ‘London’ compartment, as London is my spiritual home.

I am biologically Swedish/Italian. When I was two my mother married an Englishman, and from then on I was brought up between England and Sweden. Italy and my Italian family only came in later on in my life when my mother and I ran away to Italy in her purple Ford Cortina. I was 12 at the time. If you’re interested in this, the whole saga is told in my book Ciao Bella, which is being re-released this summer.

But the point of this blog is not to sell books. At least not just to sell books. Ten years ago, we (my English husband and first-born daughter) moved from England to France. Two of my children were born there. And four years ago we moved to Abu Dhabi. So there is a bit of a mix going on.

Last night I watched England play Sweden in the Euro 2012 competition. As a child I was rather generous with my sporting loyalties. I could just as easily be singing Heja Svergie, as Forza Italia or even Allez les bleus. This has now changed. There is only one national team for me: England. I remember the words of the commentator: “If Waddle misses this, England are out of the world cup” as if they were yesterday. They were in fact in 1990. I spent most of my honeymoon in 1998 watching football, we raced back from the ferry from two weeks in Sweden in time to see Beckham get a red card.

So to me it was not odd last night to be yelling, praying, suffering for a side that really is not mine on the face of it. I am no more English than a Swedish striker. But I can’t help it. If (when?) we get knocked out of course, it will be fair game. But you know what? I think I might actually support Spain. Because that’s where Torres is, and we all know who he plays for? You don’t? Well, it is a London team called CHELSEA. So sporting loyalties don’t just come with your biological roots, they are obviously nurtured over years of supporting a team, or watching a team. My children of course are far less complicated, they have much more English influence, as well as English blood, although Bea and Leo, who are born in France do have some loyalty to Les Bleus. But whatever else, they support Chelsea, and there are no divided loyalties there whatsoever. Viva Espana!

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

I don’t know you, but I hate you

OK I promise I won’t go on about the AMAZING Champions League victory on Saturday, I realise most of my readers are not obsessive Chelsea fans. But today is George Best’s birthday, so it would be rude not to mention football at all.
Even those of you who don’t follow football will have heard of George. He was the first celebrity footballer, a two-footed genius whose flamboyant lifestyle eventually got the better of him. This quote from the man himself sums him up: “I spent 90% of my money on women, drink and fast cars. The rest I wasted.”
No one minded that he was a playboy, because he had charm. It is incredible how much one can get away with if one has it. And how many people are sadly lacking in it. As Oscar Wilde said: “People are either charming or tedious.” Just before the magazine closed down, we ran a feature by Anna Blundy, one of my favourite writers, called ‘I don’t know you, but I hate you.’ It was all about first impressions, and how we inexplicably hate some people on sight. Funnily enough I had the opposite happen the other day, I really liked someone on sight, quite an unusual experience. Especially as our sons were on opposing football teams.
Now that I am a stay at home mum I see a lot more of the school run and the school mums. I do think the ‘hate at first sight’ thing is most prevalent at the school gates. Why is this? Is it because we would all rather be having their nails done or lunching with a lover? Is it because we are all linked by the common denominator of children in the same school and somehow this common factor creates rivalry? Or maybe it’s just because, in the main, women don’t much like other women, or at least ones they don’t know? After all, they might be after their husbands. Or even worse, their lovers.
I would like to assure all the mothers at school that I am not a threat. I have yet to see anyone’s husband (apart from my own) that I want to end up in bed with.
Maybe I will try a charm offensive and smile at some of the grumpier ones today. In my post Champions League euphoria I am Miss Magnanimous. Or I could just send the driver to get the children and sit at home watching old youtube clips of George….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Women of a certain age

There is a famous saying that women of a certain age discover either God or gardening. I would like to add a third discovery, every bit as all-encompassing and obsessive: Tennis.
I have loved tennis since I was a child. I was never much good at it, the only training I got was hitting a ball against a wall in a cow-shed, but I watched Wimbledon every year and was mad about Borg, followed by Agassi and Edberg.
Then when we moved here I rediscovered the game. But not in a sort of casual ‘oh I might play when I get the chance’ kind of a way, but an ‘ a day without tennis is like a day without bread’ kind of way, whereby I have panic attacks if I don’t have tennis planned on any given day. Four times a week is a bare minimum.
I am not alone. Which is lucky or I would have to find a cowshed to hit a ball in, and there are not many of those around here.
Happily for me there are plenty of other women who have been hit by the tennis bug and who are willing to play as often as possible. We discuss racquets, top-spin, the mental game and other essential topics.
I have been trying to work out what it is about tennis that makes it so compulsive. It is tough to define, but I think in part it is the mental aspect of the game. It is incredible how much difference it makes to the result if you are focused. As Boris Becker said: “Tennis is a psychological sport. You have to keep a clear head. That’s why I stopped playing.”

Maybe that’s why women of a certain age, with so much going on in their heads, take it up. To experience the sensation of thinking of nothing else but hitting a perfect cross-court backhand.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

The best soap opera in the world

No, I am not going to drone on about Downton Abbey again. The best soap opera in the world is football. I am utterly addicted to the progress (or lack of it) of Chelsea Football Club. And not just the performances on the field. If David Luiz gets a haircut, it is big news in our household. Luiz you have to understand, does have the MOST amazing hair and also looks like a character from a Mantegna painting, but I digress.

In the Chelsea soap opera so far this year we have had: The great white hope manager, AVB, in some ways (nationality) reminiscent of the best manager the club ever had (Jose) and who even worked with Jose, a fact that elevated him to practically God-like status without doing anything else at all. Of course said manager turns out to be utterly useless, dragging the club through one of its worst periods ever. Then we have had the gorgeous striker who can’t score. Fernando Torres, bought for £50 milllion, making him the most expensive striker in the world, and unable to hit the back of the net. Another sub-plot has been the battle of the old guard; the backbone of the team, Lampard, Terry and Drogba, and their future. Are they too old? Too powerful? Clearly AVB thought so. But in the end, they see him off much to the delight of fans all over the world.

On the field we have three major plots; the premier league, the Champions League and the FA Cup.  For the Premier League, the question now is whether or not (because we cannot win it) we will even finish in the top four, meaning we can play in the Champions League next season. If we don’t “make it to Europe” as they call it, we lose clout when it comes to keeping and attracting top players, not to mention a lot of money. One option is to win the Champions League this year, which automatically qualifies us. But we have not even got to the semi-final yet (key game tomorrow) and if we do, we may face Barcelona. The FA Cup is the third plot-line. We face Tottenham (London arch rivals) in the semi-final. We have already booked our tickets to London in case we get to the final. That is one episode we need to see live.

The last episode was a joy to watch. We beat Aston Villa 4-2 and Torres ended a 24-hour Premier League goal drought by scoring. It was poetry. And incredibly dramatic. We were leading 2-0 before they equalised, then we scored twice in the last 15 minutes of the game. Tomorrow night we face Benfica in the quarter finals of the Champions League. We beat them 1-0 in the first leg so expectations are high.Then it’s the FA Cup semi-final.

There is no soap opera in the world that gives you the same levels of misery, joy, elation and frustration as following a football team does. The cast is a little bereft of female characters and there is little or no love interest (unless Ashley Cole gets back together with Cheryl), but you can’t have it all.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

A Tiger in my gym

A week ago today I spotted a rare and beautiful creature in my gym. Many women have sighted him before me, but it still felt very special. It was none other than the ‘casually sweaty Tiger Woods’ creature, former world number one golfer and reason that millions of women (and probably men) watch golf now, even though they had never heard of the game before he bounced on to the scene.

We had a deep and meaningful discussion. Me: “Hi Tiger, good luck today, I really hope you win.” Him: “Thank you, I appreciate it.”
He didn’t win, some English bloke no one has ever heard of did, but he played well, and cut a fine figure in his grey sweatshirt and grey shorts (not that I was gazing) with his two bodyguards (I want that job).

Sport seems to dominate my life at the moment. If I’m not spotting Tiger in the gym, I’m on the tennis court. I have become utterly obsessed with tennis. I play it, and then I read about it, at the moment I am going to bed with Rafa’s autobiography every night. Failing that I watch other people play it and then talk endlessly about it. “Can’t you just have an affair like every other women in town?” Rupert asked me the other night as I described my new serving motion.
As I write I see my ical alarm flashing ‘Man U at home’. It is almost time for Chelsea versus Man United. I have been in constant touch today with my old friend Floss who first introduced me to Chelsea when I was 17. She has two children (boys) whose middle names are Stamford and Gianfranco. If only Torres had been playing for us when Leonardo was born he might have been Fernando.

I think one of the things that is so compelling about sport is that it is truly unpredictable, well, apart from Chelsea’s bad form, but as Floss said today, we are delusionally optimistic. On the outside I am saying ‘of course we will lose’ while secretly hoping for a Torres hat-trick. But the point is, we have excitement and unforeseen outcomes, much like a soap opera, without having to sit through 15 hours of Season One. And the heroes are just as good looking, especially in their gym kit.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012



The new Lampard?

Last week, in fact most weeks, was dominated by sport. First Leo became a class rep at school and proudly shared with us the suggestions he is going to make to improve the life of his classmates.

First up, change the astro-turf pitch to grass. Second, create a cover over the football pitch so you can play during the hot summer months.

“Do any of your suggestions,” I asked him, “not involve football?”

He thought for a moment and then said: “Good point.” I’m sure we will see some rugby and cricket suggestions too.

Last night we watched Chelsea v Bolton. Frank Lampard scored a hat-trick. There are few things that make Leo and I happier than Lampard playing well. For Leo he is an integral part of the Chelsea team he first fell in love with a few years ago, along with John Terry and Didier Drogba. For me, he represents a side of football that I love and that you rarely see nowadays.

Lampard, who played his 350th game for Chelsea last night, comes from footballing stock – his father played for West Ham. His best friend is John Terry, the Chelsea and England captain. When he scored his hat-trick, he held up three fingers and looked to the sky, a gesture he has taken to since the sad death of his mother a couple of years ago. He is what I would call a proper bloke and you get the impression that his team is like his family, not just a place he earns lots of cash.

On the other end of the scale you have spoilt brats like Tevez, the Man City player who refused to play last week. Boys who are paid more than the GDP of some small countries and behave like divas. They take the soul out of the game and their teams.  Say what you like about Abramovich, but he has kept the spirit of Chelsea alive, even if he has pumped millions into it.

It will be a terribly sad day when Frank (now 33) finally retires, but maybe there is a young boy out there watching, who loves Chelsea and longs to be the new Lampard? Just as soon as he’s sorted out the astro-turf issue.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011