As a sports fan, last night was just sensational. In the dying moments, Christian Ronaldo sent Old Trafford into orbit with a 95th minute winning goal before running to the corner-flag, be-shirted, muscles oiled with sweat, glinting under the floodlights, to receive the adulation of a disbelieving faithful. Electricity shot through the stadium and the celebrations lasted for an hour afterwards – those lucky enough to be there were dumbfounded at what they’d just seen. It was Boys Own stuff, straight from the comic strip and proves the essence of what top level sport is all about. Genius in action is addictive viewing.
And this was on the back of another soccer performance from the Gods just the night previously. Lionel Messi, back from injury, took his place in the Paris St-Germain line-up at the Parc des Princes stadium wearing the number 30 shirt and with carte-blanche to play anywhere on the park that he deemed fit such is his mercurial stardust.
Little touches here, feints there, nonchalant strolls and darting explosions of pace were his calling card all evening before a quick pick-up and rapier-like wizardry to dent the onion bag in the 74th minute. It was his first goal for the club. Grown men were crying.
Performance matters. You can assemble the finest players and create the perfect structure but if your superstars don’t perform, it’s all for nothing. In sailing we have been blessed over the years with real superstars who take their moment and create history.
The names that spring to mind in the Cup of the modern era are John Bertrand, Dennis Conner and Russell Coutts who all created an aura of invincibility around them at their peak. When it was their time, they performed and delivered on another plane to the also-rans and carved their names into the history books with rightful glory bestowed by their fans, crews, and owners.
Today the stardust of superstardom is a rarefied atmosphere in the Cup. In my view we have just five absolute stars who are capable of doing the impossible – Burling, Ainslie, Slingsby, Spithill and Outteridge. That’s it. This is our generation that will define the 37th edition and one of them will join the ranks of the truly great. Their raw strengths and weaknesses are on display month after month on the SailGP circuit and in that semi one-design arena, it’s a brutal exposé with absolutely no hiding places.
So if you’re a team boss sitting in a boardroom signing cheques and listening to ‘experts’ what’s your gut telling you about the individuals that you could be about to entrust millions of dollars and reputation to? Who gets you going: “we have to sign him”? Let’s look at the runners and riders and pick the leading contenders in the Fantasy Cup team…
First up, Pete Burling. Proven winner but niggling doubts linger. At the very highest level this summer, he hasn’t quite achieved by absolute superstar standards. The silver in Tokyo when Gold was written in the stars was a signal – harsh as that may sound.
And it’s been all on or all off in the SailGP. Flashes of utter brilliance and demon starts but lacking on ultimate success and questionable in white hot situations. Perhaps living on reputation and a slight retreat from his peak? You rather suspect a co-dependent relationship with Blair Tuke but can he deliver in an even boat when the chips are down? He certainly wasn’t sailing well in the opening races of the Cup and that bear away with Glenn shouting at him revealed much. Superstar? Yes but.
Jimmy Spithill meanwhile is the ‘Pitbull’ by dint of his forceful, straight, no-nonsense personality. A bundle of Aussie competitiveness wrapped in almost a WWE persona. He doesn’t aim to be liked in the media and can’t hide his distrust and dislike of anyone with a microphone or a pen, this is a business and he’s extracting every inch of his talent on a daily basis.
Dynamite on a podium in a press conference but a little obvious and you suspect that his heyday was that line: “Imagine if they lose it from here.” An out and out winner although a poor season marred by bad luck, mis-steps and crew-handling errors in the SailGP has seen his bright star wane a tad but still regarded as white hot and feared in combat by his peers.
Tom Slingsby however is the Lionel Messi of sailing. Utter genius on his day, way, way above anyone in terms of natural talent but prone to a howler on occasions and far more comfortable in single-handers where he is solely reliant on himself. Bubbly or bust, he draws you in to a point where you just can’t miss a moment. Hairs stand up on end as he sails and you find yourself admiring genius angles, outstanding tactical awareness and course positioning whilst occasionally hiding behind the sofa when it doesn’t happen.
This is a raw talent that any team boss in the Cup will want to mould to even out the performance deltas whilst acknowledging his seat-of-the-pants brilliance. With the right team and support structure, Slingsby could easily be the greatest of all time.
If Slingsby is Messi, Ben Ainslie is Ronaldo. A sailing CV that doesn’t talk, it screams and a will-to-win up there capable of comparison with legends of any sporting discipline. On the water Ben cajoles and hustles, kicks open doors and crucially can do it all under immense pressure in the dying seconds or at the crucial moment.
If you’re a team boss, you know that Ben is the best, the legend, the GOAT but need to address his status to get the best from him. Prone to taking on too much responsibility and being the front-man for everything, you would see that and realise that to get the best from him, he has to have a first class support structure around him. If shielded, cosseted and protected, Ben’s time in the Cup is very near.
And finally Nathan Outteridge, the wind whisperer. Raw, brilliant, natural talent that can smell a shift in a dying breeze from a mile off and a rare steering talent that is smoothness personified.
Think Ken Read in J24’s or Buddy Melges in the Star Class, Nathan glides around the course and listening to the onboard commentary you just know he’s got talent to burn. The persona is no-nonsense borne from a lifetime in the dinghy park honing a talent that has come from long days on the water and a determination to rise up the ranks. Over-looked, incredibly, in the last cycle, he’d add massively to any team. The dark horse but definitely not the second choice.
Who would you pick? I know who my dream team would be…