The story behind the viral photos of Lionel Messi and a baby Lamine Yamal

“It was a difficult photo to take,” Joan Monfort tells The Athletic. “We can say I sweated some blood to take it.

“(Lionel) Messi is still shy now; he was much more shy when he was starting out and he finds himself there with a tiny baby in a plastic bath full of water. And with his mother. At the start, there was not much interaction. It was difficult for all of them. But, bit by bit, it started to happen and in the end, it’s a pretty good photo.”

In December 2007, Monfort took a photo of a 20-year-old Lionel Messi, who had begun his legendary Barcelona career just over four years earlier, and Lamine Yamal — who was just six months old.

It was published in a 2008 charity calendar organised by Barcelona’s club foundation and Catalan newspaper Diario Sport, with the money raised going to charitable organisations including UNICEF and different NGOs around Catalonia.

Members of the Barcelona squad were photographed alongside children. Hundreds of families collaborated with the initiative for a number of years and most of the photos have now been forgotten, outside of the families of the children who have treasured private memories.

It just so happens that Yamal, Barca’s teenage star of the future, ended up paired with the man who would go on to win the Ballon d’Or eight times.

The bathing photo, as well as a number of other images from the shoot, including one where Messi is seen cradling a baby Yamal in a towel and another where his mother Sheila Ebana helps wash her son, have returned to public view because one was posted on social media on Thursday night by Mounir Nasraoui, the father of Barca’s Yamal — the record-breaking 16-year-old who is starring for Spain at this summer’s European Championship.

“It’s something incredible,” Monfort says. “Back then, nobody could imagine that this baby would be who he is now — and you could not have known that Messi would become who he became, either.

“We are talking about 2007. Messi was only beginning at Barca then. Destiny plays an important role in these things.”

In December 2007, Messi had already won two La Liga titles and a Champions League, but was still just an emerging talent in a squad full of established stars including Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Thierry Henry and many other household names.

“They gave you a list of players — 12: one for each month,” Monfort says. “You have to take your time. Often footballers come in and say, ‘Let’s go, let’s do it. I’m in a rush; what do you want to do?’.

“It can be a bit cold, especially in a photo where you need interaction between two people who do not know each other. Then, when one is six months old and the other is 20, it can get difficult, but it turned out pretty well.

“The mother helped a lot. Her presence was super necessary, so the baby did not feel it was too strange. You look for a tender image — something sweet and nice.”

Lamine Yamal has been a revelation for Spain at Euro 2024 (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Monfort says he always tried to make sure each family got a copy of the photos he took to keep themselves, especially in this case given the effort Yamal’s mother made to take him to Camp Nou from the town of Mataro, north-east of Barcelona.

“I’d always want to give them a photo; it makes them really happy,” Monfort says. “The player might not be too worried but the parents of the kids would be very excited. They lived in Mataro, 40km away from Barcelona. Not everyone would do that, with a young baby too. They would have to make the trip, then wait for the player to arrive; for everything to be set up.”

Six and a half years later, Yamal started to get the train regularly from Mataro when he joined Barca’s La Masia academy.



What makes Lamine Yamal such a special footballer?

His progress has been phenomenal: a La Liga debut aged 15 in April 2023, an international debut at 16 last September, and now Yamal is a key part of the Spain side which on Friday beat Germany 2-1 to make the Euro 2024 semi-finals.

“It’s a one-in-a-million chance that this could happen,” Monfort says. “It’s such good fortune.

Lionel Messi, Argentina

Lionel Messi is currently playing for Argentina at the Copa America (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

“These days, it happens a bit more as people have their phones and share photos, but this is like the photo of Guardiola as a kid applauding (former Barcelona and England manager) Terry Venables being carried on players’ shoulders. When Venables died, Pep posted the image.”

This photo of a 15-year-old Guardiola, himself then a La Masia student and Barca ball boy, later a Barca player and coach, and now Manchester City manager, is from April 1986. Englishman Venables was then midway through his three-year spell as Blaugrana coach and was hoisted aloft by players Paco Clos and Migueli after the team came from 3-0 down and then won a penalty shootout in a European Cup semi-final against Goteborg.

Monfort is still taking photos, these days for Madrid-headquartered Diario AS. He was surprised when a former colleague from Diario Sport contacted him after the photo of Messi and Yamal was posted and went viral.

“He asked me, ‘Was this my photo?’,” Monfort says. “I said ‘yes’. He sent me the photo and I asked him, ‘Who is the baby?’ and he started to laugh, and said ‘Lamine, Lamine’.

“He told me the father had put it on social media. In Sport, they could hardly believe it. They had just realised too.

“It’s been really surprising, all this. We take so many photos, so many images. Some of them will remain.

“For Lamine to grow up to be a footballer, and to have this photo, I’m just really happy it happened. It’s especially nice in today’s football, when so much is to do with money and power.”



Spain’s Lamine Yamal passes school exams during Euro 2024

(Top photo: Diario Sport/Joan Monfort)

How Uruguay vs Colombia descended into chaos – and the questions raised by the ugly scenes

Follow live coverage of Canada vs Uruguay at the Copa America third place play-off

What should have been a showpiece game in the semi-final of the Copa America in Charlotte on Wednesday night descended into something more akin to a bar-room brawl as several Uruguay players, including Darwin Nunez and the captain Jose Maria Gimenez, clashed with Colombia supporters in the stands after the final whistle.

It was an ugly, chaotic and extraordinary scene that overshadowed a compelling match, raising serious questions about the security arrangements in place at the Bank of America Stadium as well as CONMEBOL’s decision to stage a game of this magnitude at a venue that was being used for the first time in the tournament.

Another match is taking place at the same stadium on Saturday, when Uruguay return for a third-place play-off against Canada, and there will surely need to be an investigation between now and then to establish the full chain of events that led to the unsavoury scenes that were circulating on social media in the aftermath of Colombia’s 1-0 victory.

Nunez was visibly upset after becoming embroiled in an incident in which punches were traded and objects were thrown in one of the blocks in the lower tier where the families and friends of the Uruguay players were located close to Colombia fans.

Darwin Nunez went into the stand after the match (Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There was a mixture of anger and frustration in the voices of the Uruguay players afterwards.

“It’s a total disaster,” Gimenez, the Uruguay captain, said. “There wasn’t a single police officer. They showed up half an hour later. A disaster. And we were there, standing up for ourselves, for our loved ones.

“Hopefully, organisers take a little more precautions with our families, with the people and those around the stadiums. Because this happens every game. Our families are suffering because of some people who have a few drinks and don’t know how to drink, who act like children.”

The Uruguayan Football Association (AUF) has said it will analyse all the footage before deciding whether to make an official complaint. But it is clear the AUF believes it was an oversight to put the players’ friends and families in the same area as Colombia supporters without any sort of partition.

“I think there should’ve been some kind of barrier, especially because it was known practically from the beginning of the tournament that the Colombian fans were going to purchase 95 per cent of the tickets and that area (of the stadium) could get complicated,” Ignacio Alonso, the AUF president, said.

As for the actions of Nunez, Gimenez and others, Alonso maintained what they did was only to be expected in the circumstances. “The Uruguayan players reacted instinctively to what is natural: which is to defend and protect the children that were in that part of the stand, the women who were being assaulted, the wives, fathers, children and brothers who were there. It’s an instinctive response of a father,” he added.

The backdrop to all of this is that emotions had been running high at the stadium all night — Colombia played the entire second half with 10 men after Daniel Munoz was shown a red card just before the interval — but it was the final whistle, after seven minutes of stoppage time, that brought the first of two flashpoints.

Initially, there was a melee in the centre circle, where more than 40 players and staff congregated immediately after the game. Some Colombia and Uruguay players embraced one another while others — Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Colombia’s Miguel Borja among them — became involved in an altercation. There was a lot of pushing and shoving elsewhere but, on the face of it, nothing more sinister than that.

Moments later, though, some of the Uruguay players started to sprint towards the touchline, in an area just to the right of their dugout. At first, it was unclear what was going on, other than that some children wearing Uruguay shirts were being carried out of the lower tier and onto the pitch.

The videos that emerged later provided a fuller picture and showed Nunez, along with Gimenez and the Barcelona defender Ronald Araujo, climbing up into the stand and angrily confronting Colombia supporters. As everything got more heated, Nunez appeared to be struck by one fan. The Liverpool striker also appeared to throw a punch back.

“’Some of the players had wives, small children, their parents, older relatives… They went to see how they were doing,” Suarez said. “Then those things started to happen, the images that you’ve seen. They (Nunez, Gimenez and others) were trying to protect their families. From what I saw, there were a lot of relatives and children affected. You’re left powerless in that situation.”

Contrary to what Gimenez thought, police officers were present at the scene, albeit they took some time — more than 60 seconds — to get the situation under control and needed the help of security personnel.

Prior to that, it had threatened to turn into a free-for-all as other Uruguay players and staff got involved, clambering over seats. Video footage appears to show Rodrigo Bentancur throwing an object of some sort into that area.

As for Nunez, he was clearly still irate and deeply upset by everything that had happened when he got down from the stand. The forward picked up a chair, ran towards an area where Colombia fans were goading him, and threw it into the wall below, prompting some of the Uruguay substitutes to drag him away.

Nunez looked extremely emotional at that point. He was consoled by one of the Uruguay backroom staff on the pitch and also by Suarez and Luis Diaz, the Colombia forward who plays alongside him for Liverpool.

As the dust started to settle and the fans spilt out of the stadium, there were Uruguay players still on the pitch holding their children. Matias Vina had a baby in his hands at one stage, Nicolas de la Cruz sat with his daughter on his knee on the floor, and Nunez was later pictured with a child on his shoulder.

The Uruguay players looked like they were in a state of shock as much as anything. “It was an ugly moment,” Sergio Rochet, the Uruguay goalkeeper, said. “It’s not nice to see these problems, especially when your family is only two metres away. We are sad to go out of the tournament and now we have to deal with this situation.

“From what I saw, they (the supporters) started throwing things. You try to stay away from that, but when you see that it’s your family, small children, it’s difficult. I was surprised by the lack of empathy from the Colombia players. I think they should have come to calm the waters.”

Like a lot of people in the stadium, the Uruguay manager Marcelo Bielsa had no idea what was going on at first. He said he initially thought his players “were going to thank the Uruguayan fans for the support. But then I learned that there were other kinds of unfortunate difficulties.”

As for CONMEBOL, South American football’s governing body issued a statement that made no reference whatsoever to any issues around a lack of organisation at the stadium — something that was evident in so many ways on Wednesday night — or safety problems.

“CONMEBOL strongly condemns any act of violence that affects football,” it said. “Our work is based on the conviction that soccer connects and unites us through its positive values. There is no place for intolerance and violence on and off the field. We invite everyone in the remaining days to pour all their passion into cheering on their national teams and having an unforgettable party.”

(Top photo: Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Why NFL players trust a football outsider to navigate 18-game-season negotiations and more

LOS ANGELES — Lloyd Howell needs directions.

“Wait,” the NFL Players Association executive director asks, weaving through a crowd of future star players and their entourages convened for a rooftop reception. “Which way is stage right?”

It’s the penultimate night of the NFL Players Association’s Rookie Premiere, a business and marketing orientation for 18 top first-year players. Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels, Drake Maye and Brock Bowers are among those mingling, eating and drinking with peers, family members, friends, former NFL stars and current NFLPA business partners. They await the evening’s main event — an unveiling ceremony where the young players will see the game jerseys they will wear this fall.

This is the first Rookie Premiere for Howell, 58, hired by the NFLPA last June after an almost 30-year career at Booz Allen Hamilton, a defense contractor and consulting firm with expertise in cybersecurity, engineering and espionage, where he spent his final years as chief financial officer and treasurer before retiring in December 2022.

Forgive him his directionally challenged moment. Howell has spent the last year crisscrossing the country — meeting with players, owners, agents, general managers, and head coaches on a fact-finding/relationship-building mission — and the fatigue is real. Now, as his first year on the job draws to a close, Howell just has this final obligation to fulfill.

If he can figure out where he’s going.

Finally, he reaches his landmark, and the ceremony proceeds without a hitch. Howell welcomes the ceremony’s emcees, former NFL quarterback Michael Vick and safety Ryan Clark, who impart words of wisdom before directing the unveiling of the jerseys. Howell then introduces the rapper Quavo, who performs a couple of songs before the rookies get their opportunity to pose with their new team-issued attire.

Once in the background, where he prefers to operate, Howell takes in the scene and floats between conversations with Vick, Clark, Williams and Fanatics founder Michael Rubin, his quest for information seemingly never-ending. The owner of a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Penn and an MBA from Harvard, Howell never envisioned working in the NFL universe. But now, the life-long sports fan and self-described “geek” is fully entrenched, with the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the league’s continued growth.

Howell prioritized meeting with players, owners, agents, general managers, and head coaches in his first year as NFLPA executive director. (Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photo: Kevin A. Koski / NFLPA)

Howell won his five-year term as executive director last June after a secretive 16-month process largely because his expertise, vision and preparedness impressed the members of the NFLPA executive committee. During his second interview for his position, Howell turned the tables on committee members, grilling the men who would decide his fate rather than fielding their questions.

“He had our entire budget and was going line by line and making comments like, ‘Hey, I’m curious about this. I think this should be changed — just seems like it’s way too high. I really want to look into this, this detail here,’ and ‘Hey, what does this team do? This seems like there might be some crossover here,’” said Washington Commanders running back Austin Ekeler, an NFLPA executive committee member.

“We were blown away. Like, this man didn’t have this information for that long, and he was giving us these analytical breakdowns of things that he would suggest.”

The finances of professional football may have been foreign to Howell, but numbers and business practices were not. Growing up in Philadelphia, Howell learned about business and the importance of a strong work ethic from his father, Lloyd Howell Sr. (“a serial entrepreneur”), and mother Jeanette, a teacher. His love of sports was cultivated during his formative years. Although competitive swimming was uncommon for Black kids in Philadelphia during the 1970s, Howell was one of the early members of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swimming program (founded by legendary swimming coach James Ellis, the program’s success inspired the 2007 film “Pride”). Howell played football in high school, calling himself an undersized tailback, and received offers to swim collegiately.

Then, in August 1984, just two weeks before Howell was to leave for Penn, Jeanette died of cancer only months after her diagnosis. “It was the first time in my life where your safety net, your everything, it’s just gone,” Howell said. “I found myself forced to think about things in a much more proactive, anticipatory way.”

The analytical approach forged through tragedy served Howell well in college — and as he climbed the ranks in the business world.

“It started as a security reflex, protective thing. And then I found that it had good implications to other aspects to my life, whether it was in school, whether it was business decisions, you name it,” he said. “I found getting into that mode just had all these benefits.”

“Lloyd often uses the term ‘North Star.’ ‘What is the North Star? Where are we going — both organizationally and then for this specific issue? … And in his framing of that discussion, everyone just starts to understand and collaborate,” said Matthew Curtin, who formed a business relationship with Howell during a 25-year span as vice president of J.P. Morgan and then managing director of Bank of America. In March, Curtin followed Howell to the NFLPA, where he is now the president of NFL Players Inc., the union’s licensing and marketing subsidiary.

Despite a change in fields, Howell’s approach has remained the same.

“He has this ability just to dissect the union and open our eyes to things that we might have not really paid attention to or we might let slip through,” said Detroit Lions linebacker Jaylen Reeves-Maybin, who was elected NFLPA president this spring. “And for him being able to do that within a year and see his areas of where he wants to improve, I think that’s been impressive.”

Howell’s hiring did not come without controversy. Former NFLA president JC Tretter said last year the prior two executive director hirings had been too public, so the union’s 32-member board of representatives agreed to allow the 11-player executive committee to vet candidates and approved a constitutional amendment that allowed the names of the finalists to remain secret until it was time for team player representatives to vote their approval.

Then, a month after Howell’s NFLPA hiring, Booz Allen agreed to pay $377 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit alleging the company overcharged the U.S. government to help cover losses in other areas of its business. Booz Allen publicly disclosed the federal probe in June 2017, almost one year after Howell became CFO. A former employee who filed a civil complaint against the company in 2016 alleged in her lawsuit that she raised the issue of financial non-compliance for months with senior executives, including Howell.

His overall resume won over the NFLPA executive committee. Howell is not a lawyer, unlike his predecessor DeMaurice Smith, who during his 14-year tenure with the union negotiated two lucrative collective bargaining agreements with the league. Howell is also not a former NFL player, unlike the late Gene Upshaw, Smith’s predecessor, and a Hall of Fame Oakland Raiders guard who commanded the respect of owners.

The fact Howell was neither proved attractive.

“Because he’s an outsider — because he doesn’t have a stake in the game or a dog in the fight, I think that’s what made him come off as even more genuine in his efforts,” said free-agent safety Michael Thomas, an NFLPA executive committee member. “He’s very real and responds at a high level based off of his knowledge of business. … ‘Well, you know, no, I’ve never worked with NFL owners. But I’ve worked with billionaires before. I haven’t actually talked to (NFL broadcast partners) ESPN, CBS and Fox, but I’ve worked with billion-dollar companies. …

“Either you have that acumen and you have that high-level IQ, or you don’t. He’s smooth in the way he talks, but it’s genuine as he tries to understand and help us understand instead of trying to talk over you or be condescending.”

Once elected as NFLPA executive director, Howell wasted little time trying to learn the mindsets and priorities of both players and the owners. Throughout last season, he embarked on a league-wide tour to meet with each locker room and as many owners and/or general managers as possible.

Establishing a personal connection with NFL owners is vital to Howell’s mission. He believes that without strong relationships and receptiveness, he will fail in his quest to get owners to begin viewing players as business partners rather than commodities. As he met with the 25 owners (or ownership teams) who agreed to sit down with him, Howell worked to learn their perspectives and to educate them on players’ views.

“(They were) well-intended and, I felt, sincere people,” Howell said. “They have been engaging on some of the topics that we’ve talked about. They haven’t — with a few exceptions — they haven’t just been like, ‘Hell no. That won’t happen.’ Some of the topics, it’s more like, ‘Well, it’s complex. We’re gonna have to think about it.’ And I think they’re being sincere in that regard.”

On his Dallas tour stop, Howell scheduled a meeting with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at team headquarters at “The Star” in Frisco, Texas. But when he arrived, Howell was greeted by Jones, his three children, and a host of grandchildren.

“It was important that my family meet him because he’s a part of what we are and he represents the constituency that deserves that from me,” Jones said. “So, it was not only respect deserved, individually speaking, but also as much about the respect owed because he represents all of the players.”

During the more than hour-long visit, the Joneses and Howell talked business — from playing surfaces to player contracts, team facilities to the current and future CBAs — and family. Howell left the meeting having earned Jerry Jones’ respect. He is someone who “wants to get out in front of things and help remedy things before things become a problem,” Jones said. “To me, he seems like someone that can look around corners. … I think that trait’s one of the best.”

Howell’s short-term goals include working on playing surfaces, offseason structures, penalties and fine enforcement. (Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photo: Kevin A. Koski / NFLPA)

The NFL declined multiple requests to speak with Roger Goodell for this story, but Howell believes he has established a good working relationship with the commissioner. Their behind-the-scenes work last fall resulted in less-stringent punishments for gambling rules violations on non-NFL contests, which was viewed as a win for the players, but Howell still sees room for improvement on a wide range of issues.

He wants NFL owners to consider an evolution of contracts that includes equity stakes for players. Lionel Messi got such a deal last year from MLS club Inter Miami CF, which gave the soccer star a two-and-a-half-year contract worth up to $150 million that included a future ownership stake in the team.

This spring, news leaked that the NFLPA’s executive board was considering a proposal that would dramatically alter the offseason workout schedule to begin in late June rather than April.

“We are the beneficiaries of growing revenue, popularity, you name it. But nothing lasts forever,” Howell said. “So we have to look at it and evaluate what could be better. What could we do? How do we get in front of this? … We should know what the economics are and then how to optimize it. And for the benefit of all, not just one group.”

Earlier this year, Goodell publicly said the league would eventually like to move to an 18-game regular season. Barring a revision agreed to by both the league and the union, the current CBA prevents that expansion until its expiration in 2030, but Howell sees no point in waiting to begin deliberations.

“I’m glad Roger said 18. I’m glad that he’s leaning into international (games),” Howell said. “I think it gives our guys the opportunity to kind of get their thoughts together, get our position together, to say, ‘This is what and how we’re thinking about it.’”

Howell noted that discussions need to occur about how the additional game would affect, among other things, field surfaces, bye weeks, international travel, practice squads and player compensation. “It sounds attractive. Who doesn’t want to see more football, myself included?” Howell said. “But all these other things have to be worked out.”

Players will not readily agree to an 18-game regular season. And owners will not readily agree to incentives for which players ask. So Howell believes the best way to avoid a lockout in six years is to start talking now.

“It makes no economic sense for anyone to have a strike or a lockout,” he said. “The world’s most popular sports league is going well. How do we keep that going? A lockout is an irrational thing. What’s more rational is, ‘Hey, if I could grow this two times, if I could grow this three times, then we should figure out what the agreements would need to be.’

“That’s what rational private-sector people do.”

Smith presided over CBA negotiations in 2011 (which included a four-month lockout) and 2020, and while those deals ultimately proved lucrative for all involved, the players believed a change in approach was necessary.

“As we talked through the search process about what we needed in the next person, we decided we needed more than just a labor lawyer,” Thomas said. “Because of how much the business of the game has grown, we felt like we needed somebody who can take us even further, help us run as a business, speak the same language as these owners, and Lloyd is exactly that.”

Howell enters Year 2 on the job with eyes on short- and long-term goals. By next summer, he wants to have begun effecting change in NFL playing surfaces, offseason structures, penalties and fine enforcement. Meanwhile, he’ll continue working toward solutions on more complicated matters, like revenue sharing, expanded seasons and teaming with the NFL in its quest for a lasting stake in the international market.

“It all takes time, and we have to approach it all with a healthy amount of analysis, a healthy amount of scrutiny,” Howell said. “But the North Star should definitely be: How do we all get on the same page toward increasing the value of this already growing enterprise?”

The rookies have questions, and Howell has answers.

Amid the marketing tutorials, photoshoots and memorabilia-signing sessions at the Rookie Premiere, Howell picked off players here and there for face-to-face meetings. He wants to establish relationships and start educating the rookies on how the union can help them throughout their careers and beyond. If there’s one thing he learned during his league-wide tour, it’s that far too many NFL players didn’t know about the benefits the NFLPA has to offer.

Given the chance to pick Howell’s brain, players capitalized. Some, like No. 1 pick Williams — the Chicago Bears’ business-savvy quarterback, who made millions in Name, Image and Likeness earnings his final season at USC — had questions about the history and purposes of the salary cap. New England Patriots wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk sought insight on how the league’s fine system works and the assistance that players receive from the NFLPA during the appeals process. Others wondered about benefits, offseason structures, the likelihood of an 18-game season and its impact on rest and recovery time.

Howell made seven figures at Booz Allen and $2.2 million in compensation from the NFLPA in 2023, per Sports Business Journal, but people close to him said he views the union role as a mission. He is fueled by the chance to position current and former NFL players for life-long financial stability and to provide the quality working conditions necessary for improved physical and mental health.

In some ways, the divorced father sees his two adult sons in the young men he now serves. And a deep dive into the history of the NFL and the journey of its players has bolstered Howell’s resolve.

“I’ve always liked challenges even if initially they seem insurmountable,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a hero complex. I don’t know if it’s just a glutton for punishment. But to be able to go into a situation that has a lot of challenges and the odds are stacked against you and to prevail … this is making a difference for young men who are entering into a very complex industry with tremendous pressure.”

(Illustration: Eamon Dalton / The Athletic; photo: Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

U.S. women’s water polo, with an unlikely hype man, eyes Olympic history — and change for the sport

Flavor Flav realizes it’s an unexpected crossover.

The rap icon once had only a vague awareness of water polo, as he’d seen Olympic matches on television. But Flav has a new appreciation for the sport, marveling at the immense stamina required to play it, after recently signing a five-year sponsorship deal to serve as the official hype man for the U.S. women’s and men’s national water polo teams.

“What type of relationship does rap have with water polo? None,” said Flav.

Until now.

How the collaboration came together is well-documented: Maggie Steffens, the U.S. women’s team’s longtime captain, posted a photo of the players on her Instagram in May with a caption outlining challenges the athletes often face, including that players typically work multiple jobs while pursuing their Olympic dreams. She called on her followers to watch and support women’s sports.

Flav, who said his manager initially flagged the post, responded to the call, pledging his support. Thus, an unprecedented partnership was born. He and Steffens appeared together last Monday on “CBS Mornings,” where Flav announced he would give $1,000 to each team member and a Virgin Voyage cruise to the squad.

The 65-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer told The Athletic he plans to attend the Paris Games, cheering on the team as they aim for a fourth straight Olympic gold medal, a feat that has not yet been accomplished by any men’s or women’s water polo team.

“I’m there to hype them up. I’m there to try to get them into that spirit of winning that fourth gold medal,” Flav said with a confidence befitting his role. “… And I know we can do it. We’re gonna get it.”

Flav also said he plans to attend the women’s team’s final pre-Olympic home match against Hungary. He wrote in a post on X he’ll be at Tuesday’s match in Berkeley, Calif., and will take photos and sign autographs “before and after the game but not during the game” so he can stay locked in.

“I’m trying to get as many people as I can involved,” he said. “Hopefully what I’m doing will open up the doors for other celebrities like myself to help sponsor these Olympic teams, because these (athletes) are out there busting their butts to make the United States look good.”

The U.S. women’s water polo team has welcomed the additional eyeballs as they go for an Olympic record. Coach Adam Krikorian, who has guided the United States to more Olympic golds than any coach on any team in women’s water polo, called it “a sport that’s been starving for attention and looking for notoriety.”

“We are a team that feels like, at times, we go unnoticed,” he said. “And so, when you have someone who’s in the spotlight share their love and their passion for our team, it’s touching. We love it. We embrace it. We hope it inspires others to hop on.”

Krikorian said he doesn’t mind if Flav’s interest encourages a bandwagon group to follow their journey this summer: “We’ll take ’em all. You didn’t need to be with us in the beginning.”

What any new fans will be rallying around is a squad synonymous with success. Since he was hired in 2009, Krikorian and the U.S. women have gone on a staggering run, claiming gold at the last three Olympics and six of the last nine world championships.

But Krikorian — a former UCLA water polo standout who calls the late basketball legend John Wooden his coaching idol — is less concerned with the results. The scores don’t even come up when his staff reevaluates a practice or a game. He preaches presence over perfection, a philosophy he highlighted when discussing Emily Ausmus, an attacker who Krikorian said has taken on a larger role as a defender “headfirst.”

At 18 years old, Ausmus is the team’s youngest player and represents a corps with no Olympic experience on a roster nearly split between first-time Olympians (seven) and returners (six). That experience level is a shift from the last Olympic cycle in Tokyo in 2021 when most players were part of the group that also won gold in Rio in 2016.

On the opposite end of the experience spectrum is Steffens, who helped lead the U.S. to gold at the last three Games. At the Tokyo Olympics, she became the all-time leading scorer in women’s Olympic water polo. And if the U.S. women get gold in Paris, Steffens will become the first water polo player to win four Olympic gold medals in a row.

Steffens, 31, can rattle off a list of younger players on this year’s roster with whom she connected in earlier phases of life, highlighting the full-circle experience for her this Games:

— Ryann Neushul, 24, is the third Neushul sister Steffens will play with at the Olympics. “I remember when she was just a kid,” Steffens said;

— Jenna Flynn and Steffens posed together for a photo at the Rio Games when Flynn was a young fan. “Now she’s at Stanford and here on Team USA and one of my closest friends on the team, and we’re 11 years apart.”

— Jewel Roemer is a Northern California native like Steffens, and Steffens grew up attending men’s scrimmages at Diablo Valley College coached by Roemer’s father. “I remember getting cute videos from (Jewel) saying, ‘Good luck.’”

— Ausmus attended camps and clinics organized by Steffens’ company, 6-8 Sports. “(She was) somebody we talked about five, six, eight years ago, like, ‘Oh my gosh, this girl’s so good and we’re really excited to see her potential.’”

“We’ve really created this special bond,” Steffens said of the younger group. “And I think as much as they look up to me as a leader and have looked up to me since they were kids and followed that path, I think what’s really amazing is I look up to them just as much.”

The U.S. women’s water polo team huddles during the Tokyo gold-medal match. The Americans are vying for a historic fourth straight Olympic gold. (Marcel ter Bals / BSR Agency / Getty Images)

Steffens is sincere in her praise, as she is in her belief in her teammates. Ashleigh Johnson, who is making her third Olympic appearance with Team USA, called Steffens “a dreamer in all senses.”

“When you’re around Maggie, anything is legitimately possible,” said Johnson, 29, the team’s goalkeeper who is widely considered the best in the world at her position. “She’s our captain, but as her friend, she will build a way for any dream to come true. And if you believe something, she believes it and you guys are going to accomplish it together.”

For example, Johnson said, Steffens typically encourages others while grinding through the hardest parts of training or pushing through a final swim set. Outside of the pool, Steffens is the one to land in a new city after 24 hours of traveling and either have a full itinerary ready or explore without a plan. She has an “Energizer Bunny attitude,” according to Johnson.

That boundless energy has carried over into other facets as Steffens and Johnson have become de facto ambassadors of their sport, a role that wasn’t always natural to them. In 2016, Johnson became the first Black woman to make the U.S. Olympic water polo team. She said, over time, she’s felt more empowered to speak about her experiences, share her story and champion diversity to inspire others.

Steffens, who joined the team when she was 15 years old, said it’s taken her 15 or 16 years to find her voice in terms of advocating for women’s athletes and more openly discussing the financial challenges of pursuing the sport.

Olympic water polo training takes place in Southern California, an area of the country with a notoriously high cost of living. In an Olympic year, training is six days a week and is essentially a full-time job for the athletes, Steffens said.

Payouts at the Games depend on the sport, country and finish, but the International Olympic Committee and each sport’s governing body have not traditionally paid winners. In a first for an international federation, World Athletics, which oversees track and field, announced in April it would award $50,000 in prize money to gold medalists at the Paris Games.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee gave athletes $37,500 for winning gold, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.

Steffens said she would play water polo — which doesn’t have a professional women’s league in the U.S. — if she made no money and had to couch surf, but her hope is for future water polo athletes to not have to work other jobs to support themselves while performing at the highest level.

“I would love to see in the future people retire much later in their career because they can afford to keep playing water polo and don’t feel like they have to retire at 22 to get a ‘real job,’” she said.

Any support helps, Steffens said, and Flav’s sponsorship is an example of the payoff she’s seen after posting about the topic.

“One thing that I love about water polo and about our team is it’s a very head-down, humble, hard-work mentality,” Steffens said. “And one of my dreams is to leave the sport and the women in this sport better than when I came in, and hopefully provide more opportunity, provide more exposure, let their stories be told, let their names be heard.”

Steffens knows there’s more work to do and more fans to rally. But each one counts, and so far, she’s hitting her goals.



From Stanford to Team USA, a water polo dynasty eyes an Olympic four-peat

(Top illustration of Maggie Steffens and Flavor Flav: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images, Jerod Harris / Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Christina Unkel: Team president, attorney, app creator and breakout star of Euro 2024

Follow live coverage of England vs Netherlands in the Euro 2024 semi-final today

The breakout star of this summer’s European Championship only played her first game on Monday.

ITV’s referee analyst Christina Unkel speaks to The Athletic before setting off for the media match against the BBC in Berlin. First, she will meet up with Jill Scott for a coffee — one of the players she booked in her former life as an elite referee is now a colleague — and on Wednesday she will be on hand for coverage of England’s semi-final against the Netherlands. She has worked on all of ITV’s matches during the tournament, plus their highlight shows.

It is a wonder she finds the time. Unkel is also the president of Tampa Bay Sun, a new team due to play in the inaugural USL Super League season starting in August, a founder of fitness apps and a litigation attorney. She is well known to U.S. viewers, having featured on Fox, CBS and Paramount Plus’s football coverage, but Euro 2024 has marked her UK breakthrough and she has garnered widespread acclaim for her calm authority.

The 37-year-old is whipsmart and her contributions have often made for the most compelling parts of ITV’s half-time and post-match coverage. Unkel is often challenged by pundits Gary Neville, Ian Wright, Roy Keane and Ange Postecoglou, who might keep abreast of football’s changing laws but still do not like all of them.

“That’s the whole point of why I did this in the first place,” she says. “I encourage them. Everyone’s like: ‘I feel like they’re beating up on you.’ Not at all! Ask me questions! If they’re struggling with those questions as professional footballers, the general population is struggling.

“If I just wanted to collect a paycheque and walk out, I probably would be cringing. But those are the opportunities I desire. Those are the conversations that IFAB (the International Football Association Board, the game’s lawmakers) might need to hear from the football community.

“They have such a high level of football understanding and sometimes they don’t even know — justifiably so — some of the nuances we have. You can take a look at the laws of the game, but the nuances or the application — what I call the case application — aren’t included.”

Unkel began her own refereeing career at the age of 10. She had been the kind of player to feel unjustifiably aggrieved with officials, to the extent that her coach told her she needed to be quiet or take a course and actually learn the rules. The treatment of referees was kinder when she was coming up — had it not been, she says, she is not sure she would have stayed in the game — and when faced with any kind of sexist invective about getting back in the kitchen, she would shrug it off with a wish that her detractors would come up with something more original.

Primarily, she was focused on becoming the kind of official she had yearned to encounter as a player.

“Being a female soccer player, people would be assigned to our games and either not take it seriously or think they’re not much of an issue,” she says. “For somebody to not care about our game — because it was a girls’ game — drove me nuts. We still deserved fair treatment and quality and care and concern. There are times you just remember a ref for how good of a job they did. I always wanted to be remembered for that.”

Unkel graduated from college to find there was little infrastructure for women’s professional soccer in the United States. Playing abroad was not an option when pay was still so poor. Officiating was the best way to stay involved — even if in the early days of her refereeing career the pay was so paltry she would actually lose money giving up her day job.

Her goal was to reach the point where she could referee sides such as the U.S. Women’s National Team. Those were the most thrilling games of her career “because of the environment that they were creating. I’m a referee and no one’s obviously going to come to see me except for my parents, but you were part of that tapestry in some way”.

Christina Unkel, pictured in 2014, during her on-field refereeing career (Stanley Chou – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

She took her first television role before the 2019 Women’s World Cup, taking on 53 games for Fox Sports. She joined up a day before Fox announced their line-up. It meant giving up her role on the FIFA Panel and, having made that sacrifice, she was keen that her involvement amounted to more than just critiquing her former colleagues. That, she says, is why “this role is very taboo”, although the stigma is shifting.

“Not many people had done this role in the way I envisioned it, which was to educate the masses,” she says. “If the referee got a decision correct, break it down: here’s the play, here’s the law, here’s what should have been the answer. It’s very rare that officials get something incorrect just because it’s a pure misapplication of law. That’s easy to explain without destroying an official. My job is not to rate the referee; my job is to explain the laws.

“When I stepped into that role, it did ostracise some people. Some friends of mine didn’t agree.” They came around when she was picked up by CBS for their Champions League coverage in 2020 and they could see what she was trying to do. This tournament has underlined that it’s worthwhile work.

“It’s been a little enlightening to me to see so many people tearing down English referees but they’ve actually been some of the best-performing officials in this tournament,” Unkel explains. “To just enlighten people so they are making opinions, or decisions that are more fully educated, is really the goal.”

At ITV, she has the benefit of a full-time video operator to help her select clips for analysis; for domestic matches, she pulls up the best angle herself. The pair treat her secluded studio booth “as if I were stepping into a VAR room” and it helps that Unkel was part of the first cohort of referees trained in VAR in 2017, with Howard Webb as her instructor.

That boot camp involved sitting in video-operating booths with timers in the corner of the footage she was watching. “At 10 or 15 seconds, it goes from green to yellow, and then it goes to red at, like, 30. So it does feel like you’re in a spy movie about to blow up.” It was good preparation for the three to five seconds she has in-game to explain decisions. “Sometimes I have to break down something I’ve learned over 20 years. What are the one or two really important things you want people to walk away with so they can connect it very quickly without having taken all the referee courses I did?

“You know what kind of checks are being reviewed. ‘Here’s what I need to look at, and here’s what I need to break down.’ And as soon as I have that answer, I’m always like: ‘Let me in! Let me in!’ If they bring me in before I have the answer, I’m commentating while I’m looking for it: ‘The VAR is looking for this specific angle that’s going to be showing this.‘ I’m basically running the audience through the exact same mental protocol that’s happening in live time.”


Among the most divisive features of the tournament are the semi-automated offsides, facilitated by additional cameras and limb-tracking technology, which denied Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku three goals in his opening two matches.

“As a striker, I’m never going to be able to accept that kind of offside,” Wright said in the aftermath of Belgium’s 2-0 group-stage win over Romania. Unkel went on to outline how certain players might have to adjust their running style to stay within the law. Spurs manager Postecoglou has also been critical of laws now punishing what previously would have been ignored. “I don’t think that is why we brought in technology,” he has said.

“We’re just in this Goldilocks period of figuring out how we want to use our technology to better the game,” Unkel says now. “Everyone hates toenail offsides. Players hate it. Refs hate it. Fans hate it. Coaches hate it.

“We see these toenail offsides because of law and the technology that’s given: the semi-automated offsides and the lines that drop. In Major League Soccer, even to this day, they can’t afford those lines that drop. We have not had issues in Major League Soccer about toenail offsides because when you do VAR in Major League Soccer, if it is really close and you truly can’t tell, you leave it be. The goal stands. It remains that way and nobody is upset by it. They might have been off by a centimetre.

“Whereas here, we know they’re off by a centimetre. And that’s what really frustrates people. I kind of laugh and advocate for: competitors and competitions can save millions of dollars if they just get rid of the offside lines. The technology is really expensive. Importantly, (in punditry) now you get someone to be able to use the naked eye to say: does that make any sense? Would that be taken back or not? How close is that?”


The coverage has exposed a gap between expectations of the technology and how it has worked in practice. Unkel is keen to point out that each law change is deliberate and meticulous; debate at major European tournaments can accelerate changes to laws but, generally speaking, tweaks take a couple of years before they are signed off. They go through technical and practical advisory boards, directors for IFAB, FIFA representatives, players, coaches and confederations.

“When people are like, ‘I wasn’t expecting this,’ either you or somebody from your coaching staff needs to be focusing on this because it does affect how you might be setting up for games or understanding the implications,” says Unkel. “You can voice an opinion prior to application so that we have a better understanding of how it’s going to play in the game, and not do so after the fact.”

With Unkel on their case, they just might.

(Top photo: ITV)

Keegan Bradley, the 2025 U.S. Ryder Cup team and the start of something new

NEW YORK — The Google Meet call lasted an hour and a half but was decidedly wrapped within five minutes.

Now that Tiger Woods was officially bowing out — after months, if not years, of being the frontrunner — who would captain the 2025 U.S. Ryder Cup team at Bethpage Black?

A five-point loss at Marco Simone in Rome stained the U.S. team’s memory. European team captain Luke Donald had been reappointed in his role only eight weeks after the stomping. Suddenly, with Woods finally deciding that the captaincy was too much to handle on top of the PGA Tour-PIF negotiations, the Americans were tasked with ideating a backup plan. The clock ticked. Thirteen months remain until the 45th Ryder Cup.

Outgoing PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, PGA of America president John Lindert, vice president Don Rea and U.S. team manager John Wood sat down for a video call during the Travelers Championship last month to decide on the next U.S. captain.

The leftover candidates all stemmed from the Ryder Cup “task force” pipeline — a system the U.S. team implemented in 2014 that shuffles PGA Tour players through assistant captain roles en route to the captaincy. The list, which included Ryder Cup stalwarts like Fred Couples, Stewart Cink and two-time captain Davis Love III, boasted unmatched experience in the biennial event. But none struck a chord in the way the Americans needed. After a crushing loss in Rome, the U.S. team had to think outside the box. Zach Johnson, who has been critiqued extensively for his poor leadership at Marco Simone, was not a candidate.

Woods’ decision to decline the 2025 captaincy opened the door for a “generational change,” according to a source directly involved in the decision, who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely. It was time for the Americans to “rip the Band-Aid off” and take a risk.

Waugh — days away from announcing he would be stepping down from his PGA role — was the first to raise Keegan Bradley’s name during the Ryder Cup Committee call, per the source. Based on a list of names compiled by Waugh, the group sifted through possibilities. Some were expected, others seemingly came out of left field. A name was floated who had never played in a Ryder Cup.

But only one individual prompted a 10-second pause from all six people in the meeting: Bradley.

“When we landed on Keegan, everyone’s ears perked up and we were like, yeah, this is the guy,” said Wood, who has caddied in six Ryder Cups. “It was a pretty expansive list. We didn’t want to leave anyone out, certainly. When we got to Keegan, it was a unanimous, quick decision.”

Bradley had immense passion for the Ryder Cup, won a PGA Championship, played college golf at St. John’s University, and once practiced weekly at Bethpage Black with his teammates. Spieth quickly voiced his excitement. “There are some choices that don’t sound like a lot of fun,” the three-time major champion said, according to the same source. “Playing for Keegan sounds like fun.” Minutes later, the committee reached their final decision.

Bradley — a 38-year-old who was snubbed from the 2023 team and hasn’t played in the event since 2014 — was going to be the next Ryder Cup captain.

He had no idea he was even in the running.

The U.S. Ryder Cup organization needed to change.

Initially, the Ryder Cup “task force” was created to facilitate a transformation in the U.S. structure, which had long-appointed captains based on career accomplishments. It built out a plan to introduce familiar faces to the U.S. team room and create continuity from event to event, including at the Presidents Cup. But each time a captain leaned on those who had been in the big chair before him instead of new voices as vice-captains, it created the same problem Woods and Phil Mickelson had been against a decade ago — leaders that were more familiar with the Champions Tour than the modern-day PGA Tour.

As Waugh told the group, according to the source, the task force “was done to change and now it’s become an agent of non-change.”

Johnson’s leadership during the 2023 Ryder Cup represented the problem to its core. He chose Love, Couples, Cink, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker as his vice-captains, creating a significant generational gap between players (average age of 30.33) and leadership (55.6). Then Johnson used his captain’s picks to select Spieth, Thomas and Rickie Fowler, players he was known to hang out with on the PGA Tour. Thomas had the worst season of his career and Spieth’s wife birthed their second child two weeks prior. Johnson still leaned on familiar pairings (like Thomas and Spieth), going against certain team members’ wishes but listening to others. The plan backfired, and Johnson was accused of favoritism and perpetuating a “boys club.” At least one former U.S. Ryder Cup team member said that he hopes that Bradley can provide a reset.

A disastrous loss in Rome stained Zach Johnson’s reputation and created a conversation about change within the U.S. team. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

There wasn’t a crisis meeting after the team’s crushing loss in Rome, but there was a concerted effort to escape an “echo chamber of sameness.” The view from the Ryder Cup Committee was that the U.S. team needed to modernize, and Bradley’s captaincy would be the first big step in the right direction.

Woods’ decision to remove himself from the running made the move possible. Since turning down the opportunity to captain the 2023 squad in Rome, Woods has been slated to lead the U.S. squad at Bethpage Black. For months Woods communicated with the PGA of America, pushing back the deadline for his decision while he contemplated whether taking on the role was possible. When Woods takes on a task, he is known to give it 100 percent of his dedication. While serving as a player director on the PGA Tour Policy Board, helping to reunite the currently divided pro game, he couldn’t make that commitment to the Ryder Cup. Shortly after the U.S. Open, Woods officially turned down the captaincy.

“That does not mean I wouldn’t want to captain a team in the future. If and when I feel it is the right time, I will put my hat in the ring for this committee to decide,” Woods said in a statement.

There were signs of change before the 15-time major champion’s decision.

A brand new role, the U.S. team “manager,” was created and filled by Wood, the caddie-turned-NBC Sports analyst. Task force members were excluded from the conversations around the plan-B captain list. “I’m officially out of the loop now,” Love III said prior to Bradley’s official announcement. “I haven’t heard anything from anybody, not even Zach.” Phil Mickelson removed himself from the Ryder Cup picture when he took on a ring-leader role in the rise of LIV Golf.

There were a variety of factors that led the group to Bradley. But Woods stepping away allowed for something dramatic.

As a Golf Channel broadcast countdown commenced, Bradley sat next to the PGA of America president and the glistening Ryder Cup trophy at the Nasdaq building in Times Square. Eyes wide, he collected himself before answering questions about a job opportunity that he never interviewed for.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be more surprised by anything in my entire life,” Bradley said on Tuesday. “I had no idea. It took a while for it to sink in. I wasn’t fully comfortable with some of the people who were passed over. So that was a heavy thought and moment.”

Bradley was first alerted of the Ryder Cup Committee’s decision during a phone call on June 23, the Sunday evening after the final round of the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Conn. Waugh, Johnson and Lindert contacted the Vermont native and delivered the news.

Days prior, the group had mentioned Bradley in the conversation for Ryder Cup captain for the very first time. They waited until the tournament was complete to reveal their decision.

A year ago, Bradley was left off the U.S. Ryder Cup team. In a year, he’ll lead it and will be the youngest since Arnold Palmer in 1963. Several days went by before Bradley could officially accept the position. At first, he didn’t think he was deserving — and he still can’t quite explain why he was chosen.

“I don’t know, I’m still figuring that out,” Bradley said. “But I know that I can do this job.”

The U.S. Ryder Cup team will depend on Bradley’s enthusiasm for the event as part of his leadership strategy. (Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Before signing off, Bradley spoke to Woods extensively about the responsibilities — he even called up the 82-time tour winner the morning of his press conference. He had frequent conversations with Waugh over three days. Bradley didn’t waver in his acceptance of the captaincy, but he needed some additional support. He reminded himself that he wasn’t just selected by board members in suits. He was picked by two of his peers: Thomas and Spieth.

“As a player myself, the opinions of the players are the most important,” Bradley said. “That’s what meant the most to me.”

Bradley’s close alignment with his team members will mark a refresh in U.S. Ryder Cup leadership strategy. On Tuesday, the six-time PGA Tour winner expressed his desire to appoint younger vice-captains. He was honest in saying that he’ll still work to qualify for the team via the Ryder Cup points list (the top six players in the standings make the team currently, though as captain he indicated he may want to add more automatic qualifiers). He denounced any biases against LIV players in his future selections.

“I’m going to have the 12 best players on the team,” Bradley said. “I don’t care where they play… I’m not worried about the LIV stuff.”

Youth. Analytics. A personal connection to Bethpage Black. Bradley might have been a shocking choice for the Ryder Cup captaincy, but he wasn’t a nonsensical one.

He has become the latest avatar for change, and the U.S. team is staking its reputation — and its pursuit of the Ryder Cup trophy — on his success.

(Top photo: Seth Wenig / AP)

Statcast at 10: From MLB’s secret project to inescapable part of modern baseball

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Rustin Dodd and Eno Sarris

The email landed in Cláudio Silva’s inbox on the evening of Dec. 6, 2011. One of the first things he noticed was the three letters in the subject line: MLB.


Silva was an NYU professor who specialized in data science and computer graphics. He had once worked at AT&T Labs and IBM Research. Those were initials he understood. But MLB? Silva grew up in Fortaleza, Brazil, a coastal city where baseball had little relevance. When he got his doctorate at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, he never bothered to learn the rules.

The email was written by Dirk Van Dall, who was working with Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), the league’s digital arm. It was forwarded to Silva by Yann LeCun, another NYU professor and one of the world’s foremost experts on machine learning. Silva read the first few lines. It concerned a secret project in the works. “MLBAM is working with a vendor on technology to identify and track the position and path of all 18 players on the field,” Van Dall wrote. The problem, he continued, was that the resulting firehose of data would need to be compressed, coded and organized on the fly for use by broadcasters, analysts and coaches.

Van Dall didn’t mention the project could revolutionize the sport, transforming the way teams evaluate players or how fans watch games. Nor did he use the project’s eventual name: Statcast.

Silva wasn’t sold. Sharing the email with Carlos Dietrich, another Brazilian graphics expert, Silva said, “It seems interesting. But it has no academic value.”

Still, Major League Baseball wasn’t a brand to brush off. Plus, compared to other corporate pursuits, this project seemed unusually laid back. When Silva and Dietrich agreed to consult, the league gave them no non-disclosure agreements or legalese, just a CD containing player-tracking data from a game earlier that year — Aug. 2, 2011: Kansas City Royals 8, Baltimore Orioles 2. That, Dietrich would say, was the day “Statcast actually started.”

That data set spawned years of research, testing and technological innovation. Two Brazilians who barely understood baseball created a data engine — code name “black box,” because no one else knew how it worked — upon which would be built the structural bones of Statcast, the tracking system that turbo-charged another wave of the sabermetric revolution.

It’s been 10 years since a primitive version of Statcast debuted at the 2014 Home Run Derby. The “Statcast era” has been one of profound change. New stats have been developed and popularized as a result, and the modern baseball vernacular has swelled, with phrases like exit velocity and launch angle entering common parlance. The firehose of data has swelled analytics staffs, transformed scouting and player development, and punctured cherished beliefs. (You thought you knew how power was produced? Think again.) Statcast is everywhere — produced and promoted by the league — but not for everyone. It enthralls analytically inclined fans and irks others.

Billions of data points have been distilled into insights that have made baseball a smarter game. But a better one? That’s up for debate.

“Something of the old school feels lost,” Cubs pitcher Drew Smyly said.

“The old-school game is the past,” countered Mets designated hitter J.D. Martinez. “We can’t play this game like that anymore.”

Ten years before the email, on a Saturday night in Oakland, Derek Jeter ranged across the diamond to field an errant relay throw and flipped the ball to catcher Jorge Posada in time to tag Jeremy Giambi and preserve the New York Yankees’ lead in Game 3 of the American League Division Series. At MLB’s Park Avenue offices the next morning, debate raged. What if Paul O’Neill had been in right field instead of Shane Spencer? What if Spencer’s throw had hit either cut-off man? What if A’s manager Art Howe had pinch-run Eric Byrnes for Giambi? Where had Jeter come from?

And why, asked one league executive, can’t we measure all of that?

The seed for the Statcast project was planted.

Statcast’s red and blue circles have become familiar to a large subset of baseball fans.

“We wanted to get into the DNA of what allows plays to happen,” said Cory Schwartz, now MLB’s vice president of data operations. “But before you run, you have to walk. You have to start with the pitch, the origin of the action.”

That part became possible in the late 2000s when PITCHf/x — a system of cameras tracking pitch velocity and movement — was installed in each big-league ballpark, inundating clubs with data and ultimately spurring a pitching revolution. Conversation inside the former Oreo cookie factory in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood that served as MLBAM headquarters turned to the next frontier: a full-field tracking system.

“The holy grail has always been if you know where the players were,” said Joe Inzerillo, who led MLB’s multimedia efforts at the time. “Knowing where the ball is in baseball is great. But knowing where the players are and where the ball is unlocks all of this other data you can start to look at.”

Having edited video for the Chicago White Sox in the 1980s, Inzerillo understood the value of automating work that was usually being done manually by clubs, like creating spray charts to position fielders and craft pitching plans. But the technology to do so was in a nascent stage. Sportvision, which ran PITCHf/x, had an expensive camera array that yielded unreliable results. European soccer clubs were using various machine vision setups, but in baseball the ratio between the size of the playing surface, the players and the ball made it challenging to capture minute movements accurately.

“We didn’t want to do something people would historically look at and say, ‘Oh my God. What were they thinking?’” said Inzerillo, now an executive vice president and chief product and technology officer at SiriusXM. “If we couldn’t measure it accurately, if it wasn’t scientific, we didn’t want to put it out.”

The solution for Statcast came from a pairing of two European companies. The Swedish company Hego had a 4K camera setup that would provide a stereoscopic view of the field. (When it was clear the project was too large for Hego’s two-person operation, Hego merged with graphics giant Chyron.) Trackman, a Danish golf company that broke into baseball with a ball-tracking device engineered by a man who’d used radar to track missiles, agreed to assemble a large array of radar panels for each stadium.

In 2013, Salt River Stadium in Scottsdale Ariz., was the testing ground for the next generation of baseball tech: Sportvision and ChyronHego cameras alongside Trackman radar. The Statcast system would need to work day or night, in weather conditions ranging from downpour to sun glare to dense fog. Silva and Dietrich installed extra equipment to validate the vendors’ output. They found that Sportvision’s results were rife with errors because it smoothed curves and made assumptions for missing data.

ChyronHego amassed a war chest of data and presented it to MLB executives in New York. They built a baseball diamond in a spreadsheet and showed how, when they input a line of data, players appeared, in position, on the screen. “At that moment,” former Hego CEO Kevin Prince said, “baseball management rocked back on their chairs and said: F— me.”

MLB had its holy grail: radar to track the ball, cameras to track players.

As data began to trickle in during Statcast’s experimental stage, then-MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman and his staff began writing down everything that could be quantified in a single baseball play. They listed more than 100 ideas. They then whittled it to about 20 “golden” metrics that would comprise Phase One of the public Statcast rollout, everything from exit velocity to sprint speed to secondary leads to fielder range.

“So much of baseball record-keeping is (an) accounting of what happened,” Schwartz said. “So and so hit 30 home runs or had 200 strikeouts. That’s backwards looking. But skills analysis enables you to look forward and look at whose skills will potentially lead to better results. That’s what baseball scouts and talent evaluators have been trying to do since before our dads were here.”

Statcast would measure process — evaluating a player’s skills with more accuracy than the eye test.

Constructing each metric took careful consideration, plus a little bit of a sniff test. The initial leader for catcher pop time — how long it takes a catcher to receive a pitch and get it to second base — was Los Angeles Angels backup Hank Conger. “No offense to Hank Conger,” Schwartz said. “We knew that wasn’t right.” MLBAM intern Ezra Wise, now an analyst for the Minnesota Twins, was dispatched to watch Conger. Wise learned Conger short-hopped most throws, and the pop-time “stopwatch” halted as soon as the ball hit any object, grass or glove. Once the metric was adjusted to measure the throw to the center of second base, Conger slid to the bottom of the leaderboard and J.T. Realmuto popped to the top.

Statcast had no name when it was introduced by Bowman at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March 2014. The system was in alpha testing that season, active in just three stadiums — Citi Field in New York, Miller Park in Milwaukee and Target Field in Minneapolis. It was also installed in Kansas City and San Francisco ahead of the 2014 World Series. In Game 7, Giants second baseman Joe Panik made a diving stop and turned a game-defining double play. Statcast not only concluded that Panik had a slightly negative reaction time — he was moving toward the ball’s eventual path 10 feet before it met Eric Hosmer’s bat — but that Hosmer would have been safe if he hadn’t slid into first base.

By 2015, with the Trackman-ChyronHego set up in all 30 MLB ballparks, Statcast insights began infiltrating broadcasts and game coverage, where data like launch angle could be used to explain a home run explosion during that season’s second half. Yet the data wasn’t available anywhere fans could find it until MLB contacted Daren Willman, a software architect at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston. Willman had created a site called Baseball Savant that provided pitcher matchups, leaderboards and an advanced-stats search function. MLBAM hired Willman and acquired his site before the 2016 season, then added writer Mike Petriello and statistician Tom Tango, who had extensive experience developing baseball metrics.

With a site, a savant, a statistician and a sportswriter dedicated to Statcast, the league was ready to take Phase One public.

It didn’t take long to see their work impacting the game on the field. One day, MLBAM staff passed around an article in which an MLB hitter mentioned he was working on his launch angle.

“We were like, OK, now Statcast is in the canon,” Inzerillo said.

The Statcast era was born in the same manner that Hemingway described bankruptcy: gradually, then suddenly. As the system churned, front offices leveraged the data to turbo-charge their analytics departments. Hitters revamped their swings to put the ball in the air. The numbers on batted balls and defensive positioning confirmed the value of defensive shifts, which only increased their use. In the early years of Statcast, Dietrich, the NYU engineer, recalled sending teams charts and data on defensive formations. “You could see clearly the defensive formations changing through the years,” he said. “I don’t know if it was in response to the data we were providing, but probably (it was) because they never had that data before.”

The defensive shift had been around since Ted Williams in the 1940s. But for decades, it remained an undervalued tool. As teams turned to the tactic, Statcast’s cameras offered a level of new precision. In 2016, left-handed batters were shifted 30.3 percent of the time in bases-empty situations. That rate more than doubled over the next six seasons, to 61.8 percent. As singles disappeared, baseball moved to stop the tactic in 2023, mandating that two infielders had to be on each side of second base when a pitch was released.

If there was any doubt about the growing influence of Statcast, one only had to consider that exit velocity, launch angle and shifting were the parts that were public. So much remained proprietary — still invisible and underground — where teams were free to take the numbers and build their own models.

“It’s completely changed the game,” said one assistant general manager, under the condition of anonymity. “For a long time, we had very little capability of quantifying what our eyes told us to be true.”

From a technical standpoint, Statcast remains a marvel, a shorthand for the broader proliferation of bat-tracking technology and biomechanics that are changing player development. When MLB introduced bat speed metrics earlier this year, Martinez, the analytically inclined veteran hitter, looked at the numbers and questioned the accuracy of the data. Others just questioned the point.

“I would argue that swinging as hard as you can to hit the ball as hard as you can to get the miles per hour promotes more swing and miss,” Roberts said, “which doesn’t help me win a baseball game.”

Few major leaguers made better use of baseball’s newest analytical tools than J.D. Martinez. (Billie Weiss / Boston Red Sox / Getty Images)

For some players, there is only so much utility in the Statcast leaderboards. Blue Jays outfielder George Springer came up in an Astros organization that embraced technology. But he never gravitated toward the metrics. They can show bits and pieces, he said, but often they don’t show “the true measure of a player.”

Spend time in major-league clubhouses, and it’s not unusual to see players poking around Baseball Savant. Dodgers starter Tyler Glasnow looks at Statcast regularly, using the numbers as a second point of validation: There is how he felt on the mound, and then there is the underlying data. But across the room, fellow starter James Paxton offered a pithy rejoinder: “I can tell you if it sucked or if it was a good pitch just by looking at it,” he said. “I don’t need the computer for that.”

Some players are neither Statcast boosters nor cynics. They’re just baseball fans. Kevin Kiermaier, Toronto’s four-time Gold Glove outfielder, doesn’t use Statcast as a roadmap to self-improvement. He sees it as an avenue to learn cool stuff.

“You sit here and watch Shohei Ohtani and Oneil Cruz hitting the ball 119 mph,” Kiermaier said. “That’s incredible. I’m glad we are able to know that. Like, ‘How hard do you think he hit that?!’ ‘I don’t know!’ Now we know.”

What once felt radical is now commonplace. When Statcast debuted in 2015, Padres All-Star outfielder Jackson Merrill was 11 years old. Once upon a time, ESPN could air an alternate Statcast broadcast and it could feel like programming from the future. Now, ESPN’s David Cone can fluently discuss barrels and predictive metrics on Sunday Night Baseball, the network’s flagship broadcast.

“The stuff that we did in 2016 that was so new is just mainstream now,” said Petriello, a commentator on the Statcast broadcasts. “You can turn on any broadcast and hear people talking about Barrels and win probability, and that’s wild.”

In 2020, Statcast’s Trackman-ChyonHego setup was replaced by an optical tracking system from Hawk-Eye Innovations, a company best known for automating line calls in tennis replay. Hawk-Eye initially installed in each stadium 12 cameras running at 50 or 100 frames per second, then, in 2023, replaced five of those with 300 frames per second cameras, which allowed for the bat and biomechanics tracking.

The bat-tracking metrics — including each hitter’s swing speed and length — were once among the 100 ideas MLBAM listed more than a decade ago. As technology improves, more measurements have become possible. Limb tracking is likely next.

“There’s kind of a natural evolution,” said Ben Jedlovec, who worked in data quality for MLB for six years, “from what happened — the guy hit a home run — to how it happened — a fastball on the outside corner, a (certain) swing speed — to how the player made that happen. How did their body have them throw 99 mph? How did the hitter’s body mechanics help him time that pitch?”

Along with the three-dimensional visualizations Statcast already has, and the advent of virtual reality, there are also visualizations made possible by the advent of limb tracking. A full-field tracking system can inform comprehensive models that help us tackle questions that at first do not seem possible.

“Let’s go back to Jeter,” Schwartz said.

Today we’d be able to measure exactly how much ground he covered. We’d know exactly how strong Spencer’s arm was compared to O’Neill’s. We’d calculate the probability of Byrnes scoring from first based on his foot speed, Spencer’s arm strength and accuracy, and each fielder’s positioning. We could produce an entire other reality and see what would’ve happened to that play if any of the circumstances were just a little different.

“You can start to tinker around with things,” Schwartz said, “and see what kind of outcomes you might have gotten.”

Instead of virtual reality, these alternate realities could help the analytically-inclined fan better appreciate what they did see in that game, and the probability of an extraordinary outcome on the field. Players might be able to use limb tracking to improve their mechanics to achieve better outcomes. We’re all likely to hear and read more about how these athletes move through space in the coming years. How that knowledge filters down to us can be customized to our preferences.

If alternate reality simulations sound … out there, it’s worth connecting them to where this started. A decade later, the creation of Statcast stands as a triumph for the league and a fulcrum for the sport. But for those who worked on Statcast, it remains a brilliant accident, a random confluence of fledgling companies, novel tech and part-time engineers.

“Picture a situation where you are my manager,” Dietrich said. “I walk into your office and say, ‘Man, I have this idea. I’ll create a tracking system with this huge set of 3D cameras and a radar to capture the ball. The company that will make the 3D cameras doesn’t exist yet. The other company that will implement the radar works with golf. We’ll call these two guys that never worked with anything related to sports, and they’ll implement this metrics engine, and after a few years, we’ll have this multi-million dollar tracking system that will give us results we never saw.

“I think I would be real lucky if I had the job by the end of the day. Because it makes no sense at all.”

(Top Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Top photos: Patrick Smith / Getty Images; Darren Carroll / Getty Images; Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)

Perfection, by Lamine Yamal – The Athletic

Follow live coverage of England vs Netherlands in the Euro 2024 semi-final today

A tear in the universe opened up at the Allianz Arena.

A space that wasn’t apparent to the other 21 players on the pitch, notably France goalkeeper Mike Maignan, or the 75,000 fans in the stands, suddenly appeared. When it did, Pedri, on the Spanish bench, brought his clasped hands from his neck to his face. He looked frightened by what he had just witnessed. Frightened by the portal to a new dimension his team-mate Lamine Yamal cut into with his left foot. The portal to a Euros final. The portal through which Yamal’s immense potential could be glimpsed.

Pedri watches Yamal’s goal in disbelief (BBC)

Time travelled with the ball as it went from out to inside the far post. Yamal was 13 when the last Euros took place three years ago. He watched Spain go out in the semi-finals to Italy at a shopping centre with his friends. Dani Olmo, the man of the match in that game, missed a penalty in the shootout. But in Munich, Yamal showed an alternative reality was possible.

Olmo scored the winner against France. His goal was exquisite in its own right for its dexterity, its elusiveness, its affirmation of Spanish technical supremacy. Olmo was playing with the confidence of someone who has scored in three games in a row. But France were also in a state of sheer disbelief and disorientation.

Four minutes earlier, Yamal had cancelled out France’s opener. Up until then, it had looked like this might be Kylian Mbappe’s night. Mbappe had discarded his mask in the way a gladiator might throw one onto the bloodied sand of the Colosseum floor. A statement of intent. His vision was no longer impaired by the “horrible” accessory he’d been forced to wear to protect a broken and bruised nose. Inside 10 minutes, Mbappe even made Randal Kolo Muani, a player who famously missed a one-on-one in the 2022 World Cup final, not to mention another against Portugal four days ago, finally score.

We’ve grown accustomed at this tournament to no one coming back against France. They’re not supposed to, anyway. The only goal Maignan had conceded so far was a penalty from Yamal’s Barcelona team-mate, Robert Lewandowski, in the 1-1 draw with Poland. Maignan had saved Lewandowski’s first effort only for the referee to order it to be retaken for encroachment. Beating him would take something truly special. Something out of this world. “We were in a difficult moment,” Yamal acknowledged. “Nobody expected to concede a goal so early.”

When a Fabian Ruiz roulette ended in a tangle 30 yards from goal, Yamal collected the loose ball and moved to puncture the enthusiasm behind the French goal. “I picked up the ball and I did not think about it, I tried to put it where it went, and I’m just very happy.”

Standing up to him was France’s giraffe-like midfielder Adrien Rabiot. Clearly, Yamal thought he needed to wind his neck in. On the eve of the game, Rabiot had said: “We’ve seen he is a player who can deal with stress very well, he has lots of qualities of playing for his club and in a major tournament. We know what he is made of. He keeps a cool head, but it can be difficult to deal with a semi-final in a big tournament. It will be up to us to put pressure on him, but we want him to come out of his comfort zone. If you want to play at a Euro final, you need to do more than he has done up until now.”

Yamal responded on Instagram with a post of a hand moving a pawn on a chessboard. “Move in silence” read the caption. “Only speak when it’s time to say ‘checkmate’.” Yamal let his left foot do the talking. His move came in the 21st minute. Yamal hid the ball, at first, by wrapping his left foot around it to go outside Rabiot only to reveal it again by nudging it inside with the outside of the same boot.

Rabiot shifted from side to side like an Arctic crab. He threw out a claw as Yamal set to shoot, but Rabiot caught none of the ball. Neither did Maignan. He covered his goal as well as he could. The AC Milan goalkeeper’s gloved hand eclipsed the top corner, but it couldn’t shut out the sun, the light of Yamal’s talent. “Habla! Habla!” Yamal shouted at Rabiot. “Talk! Talk!” All the Frenchman’s talk had been cheap. Yamal’s strike, on the other hand, was priceless. “We saw a touch of genius,” Spain coach Luis de la Fuente said.

It’s commonplace to hear people say perfection doesn’t exist. That it’s unattainable. But Yamal’s shot challenged that notion. “His shot was magnifique,” Didier Deschamps praised. It made Yamal, at 16 years and 362 days, the youngest goalscorer in Euros history. He will turn 17 on the eve of the final. The only gift Yamal wanted, he said, was “just to win, win, win. My objective was to be able to celebrate my birthday here in Germany. And I am very happy to celebrate it here with the team”. He then added: “I told my mum she does not need to buy me any present if we manage to win the final.”

As Yamal turned and dashed towards the enraptured Spanish bench, sliding on his knees in a state of euphoria, memories of a very similar goal the Barcelona winger scored against Mallorca flashed before the eyes of the Catalan journalists in the press box. But this was better. For the occasion. For the way it made Mbappe puff his cheeks in a look of awe and helplessness. “I don’t know if it’s the best goal of the tournament,” Yamal said. “But it’s the most special for me.”

Maignan is powerless to stop Yamal (Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images)

Yamal’s display will be condensed to the analysis of a moment. Rodri, however, expanded on it. “I personally went over to Lamine and congratulated him for his performance,” he said. “People will remember the game for his goal and what he did is something only a few chosen ones can do. But I personally thanked him for his defensive commitment. The recoveries, the tracking back, how he helped out the full-back. It’s been outstanding for a guy his age. I personally really rate this.”

At the end of the game, the Spanish players huddled together and jumped up and down in celebration at reaching the final. Yamal, initially, stood apart from them, nearer the halfway line like a star from a galaxy far, far away.

(Top photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

Andy Murray: Tennis’ benevolent thorn in the side of the Big Three and so much more

For more stories on Wimbledon, click here to have them added to your feed.

A hundred years from now, a tennis nerd will ask the floating hologram next to his ear about the great male players from the early part of the 21st century.

The hologram will wax poetic about a triumvirate of players known as the Big Three: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal. They ruled the sport before the advent of nuclear-powered strings and 200 miles per hour serves, winning around 70 Grand Slam titles between them. 

Then, almost as an afterthought, it will mention a couple of others who won a few of Earth’s most important tournaments, before the tours expanded to include the exoplanets of Alpha Centauri.

“Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray won three Grand Slams each and were the next best of the era of The Big Three,” the hologram will say.

Humans of 2124: do not trust your holograms, especially if they mention that in his final Wimbledon competition, likely the penultimate tournament of his career, he had to endure a 21-year-old deciding to blow off a mixed doubles match with him at the last minute. Emma Raducanu, his compatriot who is reviving her nascent career with a run into the second week at Wimbledon, withdrew in order to prioritise her singles chances in an open draw, over a chance to be on court with Murray, her idol, for what figured to be his final match on the Wimbledon grass.

Andy Murray spent his career defying expectations under the pressure of living up to them. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

So other than a planned doubles effort at the Olympics, this really is it for Wimbledon, allowing the efforts to secure his proper spot in the tennis lexicon to begin. No disrespect to Wawrinka, an excellent player with a fine career, but Murray didn’t spend the past three decades bucking convention, being the ultimate thorn in the side of so many assumptions about tennis, to have holograms and the tennis nerds that employ them remember him in the same sentence.

Maybe this is what kept Murray going the past year and a half, desperate for one more run to the business end of the grandest events in the sport long after pretty much everyone could see that wasn’t in the stars. Maybe this is why he hobbled onto courts to take on the best players in the world when climbing stairs was becoming a struggle.

In March, Murray stood in a hotel gym with Brad Gilbert, the former pro and longtime coach, in Indian Wells, California, late at 4 am. An early rising insomniac and a jet-lagged Scot jabbering about new racket technology, Murray telling Gilbert that he might have found a new stick that could give him a little extra… something.

Something that could prove that he still had the magic.

Maybe Murray really was sticking around simply because he loved just about everything about his job — the feel of the racket in his hands, the life of a globetrotting superstar, the incomparable highs that the heat of competitions produced. He burned with jealousy watching players like Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz as they started out on their journeys. He would have gone back to the beginning if he could have, not to change anything necessarily, but just because he would have loved to do it all again.    

“I want to play tennis because I, you know, I do enjoy this,” he said last year in Surbiton, where he was playing a Challenger event instead of the French Open to get extra time on the grass ahead of Wimbledon. 

“I love it. It’s not like this is like a massive chore for me.”

Murray and his new Yonex racket in Geneva, earlier in 2024. (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images)

It never really was, even if that’s the way it looked as he growled his way through 1,000 matches. But it was also the joy of playing a game he loved, and proving just about every assumption about him and his sport wrong.

First there was the idea that a Scot could even be any good at junior level tennis. Golf maybe, but not tennis. Too many talented kids from friendlier tennis climates and locales to contend with. There weren’t many indoor courts, and not too many expert coaches other than his mother, Judy, and surely not enough top-tier competition to help him develop, other than his older brother, Jamie. 

Murray wasn’t about to let that get in his way, whether that meant training harder during those first formative years or taking the radical step that few of his peers took.

“My mum did her best to create an environment for not just us two, but the players that were of a sort of performance level, and to get us together as much as we could because she understood how difficult it was,” Jamie Murray said during an interview last year.

“Obviously, Andy left when he was 15 — he went to Spain, he made the decision: ‘I really want to be a tennis player and to do that, I need to go to Spain to train’ and he was obviously very headstrong in that and he went. I stayed at home.” 

Habits form early in tennis. In most cases, a 25-year-old’s forehand won’t look all that different from his 15-year-old version. Same goes for attitudes and approaches, like Murray’s penchant for bucking conventional wisdom.

So Andy, nice junior career, but surely you won’t be able to win much against Federer and Nadal, or even your buddy from juniors, Djokovic. Born at the wrong time. Tough luck. 

He beat Nadal seven times and Federer and Djokovic 11.

Murray and his buddy from Serbia playing doubles together at the 2006 Australian Open. (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

OK Andy, nice that you can get the occasional win against top players, but a British man hasn’t won a Grand Slam in nearly a century. Can’t happen. 

And then he won the U.S. Open in 2012 and Wimbledon in 2013 and 2016, despite more pressure than any player of the modern era has likely ever felt on Centre Court.

And don’t forget about the losses, including five Australian Open finals, only to either Djokovic or Federer, like so many of his losses in the finals or semifinals of big tournaments. 

“I’m playing against guys that are winning these tournaments like 12 times each year in their careers,” he recalled during an interview last year.

And yet he still won 46 tournaments, including 14 Masters 1000 titles, the level just below a Grand Slam, far more than any player of his era other than the Big Three. Not to pick on Wawrinka, but he won 16 titles, just one a Masters 1000. 

Nice, Andy, but the No 1 taking in this era is out of reach.

He got there in 2016, when Nadal and Djokovic were still in their prime and Federer still had another three years of winning Grand Slams and making finals.

It didn’t come easy.



Fifty Shades of Andy Murray

“I basically just did everything, you know,” he recalled. “I would be on the running track. I’d be in the gym, lifting weights, I’d be doing core sessions, I’d be doing hot yoga, I’d be doing sprint work, speed work, just chucking everything at myself.”

He paid a price for that, putting so much stress on his hip that he had to undergo resurfacing surgery in 2019. Doctors told him he’d be lucky to be able to hit tennis balls with his children one day. He turned those words into a challenge to prove them as wrong as he possibly could, rising to 36th in the world last summer. 

He relished being a kind of guinea pig, one of the first top athletes to test the limits of a hip made largely of metal.

Murray’s hip first derailed him, then became one of the symbols of his career. (Ashley Western / CameraSport via Getty Images)

“No one really knows where that limit is,” he said.

“I want to see what that is.”

All of that, though, was just the competitive contrarian in him, which extended to his off-court empathy for subjects and people that the sport can relegate or try to avoid.

Male tennis players have never shown all that much respect for the women’s game. Murray talked it up and hired a female coach, Amelie Mauresmo.

They also rarely speak ill of their fellow players, or support any action that might cause much discomfort to one of them. Murray was among the first to criticize the ATP Tour for dragging its feet for months before announcing it would investigate domestic abuse allegations against Alexander Zverev. The German settled a case involving charges brought by his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child out of court, during the French Open.

Murray bought a condo in Miami and studied the training and business habits of NBA players to see what he could learn from them. When he didn’t like how management companies treated athletes, he opened his own shop. He bought an old deteriorating hotel in Scotland where his family had celebrated weddings and other important moments, even though advisors told him it was a terrible idea. He and his wife, Kim, have turned it into a luxury destination. He collects art.

Murray joins Kim and his team at Wimbledon after winning it, finally, in 2013. (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

 So, of course he was never going to leave the tennis court when everyone else started planning his retirement. Of course he was going to do it his way, trying to wring every last chance he may or may not have had for glory out of his body, and that new Yonex racket he tried earlier this year, which led him to Gilbert in Miami at 4 am.

He would not just acquiesce, even attempting to return from back surgery on a spinal cyst in time for one last singles match on Centre Court that he would likely lose. There is a reason Murray holds the record for coming back from two sets down, overcoming that deficit 11 times, that last one at the 2023 Australian Open, when he played for ​​five hours and 45 minutes and beat Thanasi Kokkinakis 4-6, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 7-5 just after that magic time, 4 am.

After some 30 years of going about life and tennis that way, old habits die hard.

Murray knew the end would come eventually.

Taking on conventional wisdom is one thing. Beating time and ageing is an altogether different animal. Murray just had to give it his best fight, which was the easiest part of the hardest thing, because he’s never known any other way. 

(Top photos: Joe Toth/AELTC Pool, Simon Bruty/Anychance / Getty Images; Design: Dan Goldfarb for The Athletic)

Euro 2024 day 23: England’s ‘cheat code’ water bottle and can the Netherlands go all the way?

The semi-finals line-up for Euro 2024 is complete.

With France and Spain having assured themselves of places in the last four yesterday, England and the Netherlands followed them with victories today.

Both quarter-finals were tight and dramatic, in different ways. England once again looked laboured and devoid of imagination for much of their meeting with Switzerland, only to squeeze through thanks to Bukayo Saka’s brilliant individual goal — which cancelled out Breel Embolo’s opener — and then some heroics in the penalty shootout.

The Dutch, meanwhile, came from behind against Turkey to reach their first European Championship semi-final in 20 years, setting up a meeting with England in Dortmund on Wednesday.

Our writers dissect the major talking points.

England’s penalty secret? It’s all about the bottle

There didn’t seem to be much in it at first.

Cole Palmer had just scored England’s first penalty in their shootout with Switzerland and Manuel Akanji was sauntering forward to make his response. Jordan Pickford, the England goalkeeper, began to trot over too, before suddenly doubling back.

Pickford had forgotten something — his water bottle, which was rather oddly wrapped in a towel. Having picked it up, he moved back to his goal and placed the bottle, still wearing its towel, next to the side netting.

Having made Akanji wait a bit longer by moving forward to inspect the penalty spot, Pickford settled back on his goal line. Akanji had a short run-up and struck the ball with his right foot, but Pickford was one step ahead. He plunged to his left, parried the penalty away and England had an advantage they were never to relinquish.

Good fortune? Not so much. This was actually a triumph of subterfuge for England and their team of analysts who had studied the penalties of all Switzerland’s players, noted where they tended to place them and printed out their findings for Pickford to stick on his water bottle.

The analysis was captured by a photographer at the ground but Pickford was taking no chances in the moments before Akanji’s penalty — hence his decision to wrap the bottle in that towel.

And England’s backroom staff had clearly done their homework well. They had deciphered that Akanji was likely to shoot to his right, so the best way for Pickford to play the percentages was to dive left — which he duly did.

Pickford’s water bottle with the instruction for Akanji’s penalty (we have circled it here)

Having got it right first time, it was surprising Pickford did not follow his bottle’s advice on all the penalties.

Fabian Schar took their second one but rather than pretending to dive right before actually diving to his left — as his bottle instructed — Pickford did the reverse, faking left and jumping right. Schar’s penalty unfolded as the bottle had predicted, to his right, where the net was vacant.

Pickford did follow his bottle for the final two Swiss penalties: Xherdan Shaqiri struck his to the right, but it was too well placed and his shot just evaded Pickford’s fingertips.

The only penalty where the bottle was proved wrong was for Zeki Amdouni on the fourth kick. Pickford held his ground and dived low to his left, as he had been briefed, but Amdouni outwitted him by going to his right.

Thankfully for England, that one save was enough. And if their semi-final against the Netherlands on Wednesday also goes the distance, do not be surprised to see Pickford’s bottle and towel make another appearance.

Andrew Fifield

Saka stars — but where is Kane?

When Saka starts well, England start well. He was their best player in the first half against Serbia in their opening match of Euro 2024, when he repeatedly had the beating of marker Andrija Zivkovic, and today he was again.

It was no coincidence that the first half today was England’s best since they started the tournament nearly three weeks ago. Pushed high and wide in possession, in a formation that almost looked like a 3-4-3, Saka was up against left wing-back Michel Aebischer. And he easily had the beating of him.

So many times in the first half, Saka took advantage of the fact that England were getting the ball to him far faster than they had been against Slovakia in the previous round. Saka got into good positions, put crosses in and forced corners. The only frustration was that England were never able to turn any of those crosses into serious shots on goal.

Bukayo Saka was a star for England (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Striker Harry Kane, who was prone to dropping deep throughout the match, ending up playing in defence at points in the second half, was unable to get on the end of any of Saka’s deliveries. Kane was substituted in extra time after an accidental touchline collision with England’s manager, Gareth Southgate.

Without the ball, Saka had to run back and cover Ruben Vargas, but he did that diligently. And when England needed him most, Saka delivered with the crucial equaliser, just when his team looked completely out of ideas.

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Can the Netherlands go all the way?

An unconvincing run, a manager who not many are convinced by, a couple of come-from-behind wins and a feeling that being in the good half of the draw is the only reason they are in the semi-finals… for England, read the Netherlands.

But here they are, in the final four of the Euros for the first time since 2004. So, how good are their prospects of winning just a second major tournament in their history?

Well, Turkey preyed on their weaknesses in today’s quarter-final, especially via set pieces and crosses, while Austria also took advantage of a badly organised defence when consigning them to third in the group stage. But the Dutch have got plenty going for them too.

The Netherlands celebrate beating Turkey (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Again like England, when they’re confident and in full flow, showing composure and intensity, they can be great to watch, as was the case when beating Romania 3-0 in the round of 16.

Tonight, they had to show resolve, spirit… and some tactical acumen from manager Ronald Koeman with his second-half changes.

Three-goal Cody Gakpo is an obvious threat (who Turkey dealt with well until he crept in at the back post to take advantage of some dozy defending and help score the winner, via Mert Muldur’s own goal), while if Jerdy Schouten, Tijjani Reijnders and Xavi Simons are given time and space in midfield they can play — and then some.

Denzel Dumfries is always a pacy danger from full-back and then there’s big Wout Weghorst to throw into the mix off the bench for some aerial carnage.

England will have plenty to think about.

On current form, Wednesday’s semi-final in Dortmund looks too close to call.

Tim Spiers

Guler departs… as a star

While a Barcelona teenager — Spain’s Lamine Yamal — has rightly been garnering attention throughout the tournament for his sparkling performances, one from their arch-rivals Real Madrid has emerged as someone equally thrilling.

Arda Guler of Turkey may not have played too often for Madrid last season, mostly owing to injury, but he ended his debut year at the Bernabeu in fabulous form (five goals in five games) and brought that momentum to Euro 2024.

Arda Guler has been a star at Euro 2024 (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

His second assist of the tournament against the Netherlands today was a beauty. Turkey and Guler, after a slow start, had come into the game via a series of threatening set pieces which the Dutch struggled to cope with, and the opening goal was an extension of that.

Picking up a cleared corner on the right of the box, Guler was itching to try to work the ball onto his favoured left foot and whip it into the box.

With no angle to do that, the 19-year-old, who also hit the post with a free kick in the second half, reluctantly took a swish with his right… and delivered a picture-perfect outswinging cross that completely befuddled goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen, who resembled someone who had half-crossed a road only to recoil and hesitate when seeing a speeding motorbike careering their way.

Verbruggen neither jumped to claim the ball nor reversed to his goal line. He was helpless. Step forward Samet Akaydin at the back post, only playing because of Merih Demiral’s suspension, and he planted an easy header into the net.

Guler’s tournament may be over now, but you sense that this is just the start of a glittering career, for club and country.

Tim Spiers

What’s next?

  • Spain vs France (Tuesday, 8pm BST; 3pm ET)
  • Netherlands vs England (Wednesday. 8pm BST; 3pm ET)

(Top photo: Carl Recine/Getty Images)