Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Aussie Pride

For the past two weeks I – like much of the world – have been glued to my couch in front of the TV watching the World Cup from South Africa. And it hasn’t disappointed.

Some of the top ranked nations in the game, including Italy, France & Spain have all failed to live up to their expectations, while North Korea, South Africa and New Zealand have supplied some of the best moments of the tournament so far.

In amongst all this, Australia too has struggled. A 4-0 drubbing to Germany in their opening game had many people in the media questioning the commitment and resolve, while many Australian fans felt the Socceroos got a rough deal from the ref.

Australia’s second game, against Ghana, answered at least one of these criticisms, with nobody able to question the resolve of the team, after yet again going a man down, but still playing aggressively and hanging on for a 1-1 draw to keep their chances alive.

One group who never doubted the Australian’s though, was their horde of around 10,000 fans in South Africa cheering them on and giving the team their full support. Many of these fans are living in tents and travelling for 10 hours each way to get to the games – and loving every minute of it.

I haven’t yet made it to a major tournament outside of Australia to support my countrymen, but I have been lucky enough to get to some games featuring overseas based Aussies.

While living in the UK, I was fortunate enough to see former Socceroos captain, Mark Viduka while he played for Newcastle against Fulham in the English Premier League. While he only came on as a substitute, he did set up the winning goal, and it was great to celebrate with the fans who had made the journey from Newcastle.

Matt Nielsen in action in Lithuania

Another Australian team captain I was able to see, is Australian Boomers basketball captain Matt Nielsen, while he was playing in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. His side, Lietuvos Rytas, was playing against a team from Serbia in the ULEB Cup. Nielsen put in a solid – if not spectacular – performance, as his team won the game to the delight of the passionate home fans. Lithuania is a basketball crazy country, with players like Arvydas Sabonis, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Sarunas Marciulionis among the greats of the game and fans who are devoted to their sides.

By far the most success I’ve had watching Australian athletes ply their trade abroad though has been this past year as part of my NBA tour, where I’ve been to 12 games in nine different cities. Aside from the overall goal of seeing all 30 teams play over the next couple of years in each of the 29 stadiums, I also wanted to see all of the Australian players in action – and I nearly did it this season.

After the Bucks win over the Warriors, with my Bogut Jersey

Australia’s most prominent NBA player is Andrew Bogut of the Milwaukee Bucks. While travelling across country I spent several days in Milwaukee, and – aside from the beer – the highlight was the chance to see the Bucks play twice while I was around.

The first thing that struck me about the Bradley Center was the noise coming from “Squad 6” a group of 100 or so die hard Bucks fans put together by Bogut to get some more atmosphere into what was otherwise a fairly quiet crowd. It worked.

Bogut and his team mates celebrate

Of course, in both games I attended they had plenty to cheer for. In the firsr game Bogut’s new team mate, rookie Brandon Jennings, had a night out scoring 55 points – all after quarter time – in one of those performances you love being able to say “I was there”. The second game saw the Bucks fall to the Dallas Mavericks on a game winning shot by Dirk Nowitzki in an overtime thriller.

Bogut played a key role in both games, and while Jennings was getting all of the attention, the two players showed great chemistry together and, along with squad 6, their play was a key reason the Bucks achieved so much success late in the season. It was clear that Bogut has garnered the respect of his peers and his fans, something not easy to do in the best league in the world.

Bogut in the block

My next chance to see Aussies play would be just days later, this time in Minneapolis. This would come as a “two for one” deal, with Nathan Jawai’s Minnesota Timberwolves hosting David Andersen’s Houston Rockets.

My first impression of the Timberwolves home – the Target Center – was they could do with a squad 6. If not for the lure of the Aussie match up, this game may have competed with Detroit for my worst NBA experience.

Jawai scores in the post against Andersen

Neither player had a huge impact on the game, but they both showed some willingness battle – especially when matched up on each other. Both guys showed they’ve got plenty to offer in the NBA, not that the crowd seemed to care. They also seemed quite disturbed by me cheering for each of them despite being on opposing teams.

Andersen and Jawai contest a rebound

This left me with just one Australian NBA player left to see – rookie Patty Mills in Portland. Living in Vancouver for the past six months, Portland has been the closest NBA team to me, so I thought it could all work out. Unfortunately, on the two occasions I made the 6 hour trip south, Mills didn’t manage to get any game time. Mills did impress during the minutes he was given throughout the season, so I hope that I I’ll get a chance to see him next season – either with the Blazers or another side.

My next chance to see Australians in action will be this coming Friday, when I head south to Seattle to watch the Storm take on the Fever of Indiana. The Fever’s starting PG is Australian Opals veteran Tully Bevilaqua, while the Storm feature three Australians, including the most successful basketball player ever from down under, Lauren Jackson. The two teams are both in form, so as well as being a chance to support the players from my country, I should also be treated to a great game of basketball.

In the mean time, there is one other important game featuring a bunch of Aussies to focus on – the Socceroos third group stage game against Serbia. While they’re still a chance of progressing through to the knockout stage of the tournament, many Australians would settle for a committed effort from our boys.

Some still feel the Socceroos have to prove something to us, but to the thousands of dedicated fans in South Africa, as long as they played like they did in the second game against Ghana, they have nothing left to prove.

Go Australia!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

One World Cup: Different in Every Country

The World Cup is well and truly underway, with each team having played at least one game now.

So what have I learned from the opening week of games? Mainly, its that, how you perceive the tournament comes down – in part at least – to which country you’re from.

With Australia stumbling at its first hurdle, it seems there’s plenty of people back home who couldn’t wait to pull out the “I told you so” or “we’re not a Soccer nation anyway” articles. People that are basically revelling in Australia’s struggle. I mentioned in last week’s article that many Australians have a very regional attitude towards sport, and seem happy that they can write off the Socceroos and get back to their usual routine.

German fans celebrate the first of 4 goals against Australia

That’s not to say that all Australians have given up on our boys though. Plenty of Australians are embracing our national team, and the cup as a whole – getting up at all hours of the morning to watch with the rest of the world – showing the sport is alive and well in Australia. There’s even people out there providing advice on how to get some sneaky sleep at work, so you don’t have to make the decision between sleep and the World Cup.

Australia’s reaction to a poor start is certainly different from other countries though. England got off to a less than ideal start, thanks in large part to a horrible fumble by their keeper, with a 1-1 draw against the USA.

Despite the obvious disappointment, English fans are still convinced their team can (and in many cases, will) win the World Cup. There’s no jumping off the bandwagon. They’ll remain behind their team (except maybe Green) 100% until such time as they win the Cup or are officially eliminated, unlike Australian fans who seem to be trying to softening a potential future blow by lessening their expectations.

This is all part of English football though. They genuinely feel as though they are the greatest football nation on earth, despite not winning the cup since 1966. To them, this is their game and the World Cup belongs in England.

Whether you believe it or not, its hard not to admire their commitment. I watched the England-USA game in a bar full of English fans on Friday, and the lead up to the match took me back to the last World Cup, in 2006, when I was living in the UK. The camp pop songs that come out every four years as the English fans feel that this time they’ll win, and the commentators who indulge the nation’s belief that it is indeed their time.

I should point out that, while I was in the UK for the 2006 World Cup, it was not England – it was Scotland. And they’ve got an altogether different way of watching the Cup, and they’re not terribly keen on their cousins to the south. Some might say with good reason. During the coverage of England’s opening game in ’06 (the Scots receive the same telecast as the English) the commentary team actually had a discussion on “who we can expect to play in the final”. The crowded bar in Edinburgh didn’t react so well to that.

The Scots haven’t made the tournament since 1998, but that’s not to say they don’t have a team. It just changes from game to game – whomever is playing against England.

This World Cup, however, I’m in Canada, not in a traditional “football country”, and it does show somewhat. While Vancouver, with its many immigrants and tourists is embracing seems to be embracing the event with its many sports bars opening up early for the games, it seems a lot like back in Australia where you can see most of the locals would prefer to be talking about something else – in Canada’s case, that being hockey.

I’ll be watching much of the knockout games from the US, which similarly isn’t known as a football nation. Its easy to forget though, that the US has around 20 million registered football players, which is more people than live in many of the World Cup nations. Still, it seems, similar to Australia, many are simply taking an interest while the expectations of their own team is high. The added bonus for the Americans is a chance to gloat about their 1-1 draw with the English. I’m sure once the US are eliminated, most US sports fans will happily get back to ignoring the cup, and watching the baseball.

Of course, some countries and their fans are happy just to be there. The host nation, South Africa provided one of the best moments of the tournament to date, by tying their opening game 1-1. While the World Cup is unlikely to end the way the last major tournament in South Africa – the 1995 Rugby World Cup – did the event gives a country that is still quite divided another chance to come together.

Another country for whom the World Cup may mean something more than just football, is that of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea). Little was known about their team coming into the tournament, and yet much has been written about their first Cup finals since 1966. Much of it has to do with politics rather than football, with stories about their leader, Kim Jong-il not allowing games to be televised unless the team won, and an attempt to sneak an extra striker into the squad in place of a keeper.

It is hard to know exactly how the events are being viewed in North Korea. Do they expect to win the cup?
Some people aren’t happy with North Korea being at the cup, having been labelled as an “enemy” due to their weapons programs. Others, however, see this as another chance for sport to do what diplomacy often cant, and help open up the communist nation to the rest of the world.

Whatever the case, North Korea has supplied the best “David V Goliath” moment of the cup so far, when they played well above the expectations of everyone, and ran Brazil within a goal of dropping points.

For many though, the World Cup is a chance to party. And for my mind it’s a good one. To be in South Africa right now with people from all over the globe there to celebrate at least one thing that they have in common – football – would be a dream. I got to experience that at the 2010 Winter Olympics earlier in the year in Vancouver, but its very addictive.

For the rest of us, we can get a bit of the vibe by just hitting some of the local bars during the games, and letting ourselves get carried away in the excitement.

And hey, at least there’s one thing most everyone will agree with no matter where they’re from – how annoying are those horns?

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The World Cup: Confessions of a Convert

In less than 48 hours the worlds biggest sporting event starts in South Africa – the 2010 FIFA World Cup – and I couldn’t be more excited.

Along with the Summer Olympic games, the World Cup remains at the top of my list of events I want to travel to at some point. While I’m not able to make it to South Africa this year, I will get to one in the next decade. Of that I’m sure.

My love of the world game wasn’t always there though. Far from it. Growing up in small towns outside of Melbourne, Australia, you could easily be led to believe that the only sports that existed in the world were cricket and Australian rules football. Football, (or soccer as its known at home) never even entered the conversation – or if it was, it was considered inferior to our own football only played by “foreigners”.

My first exposure to the most popular game in the world came when I briefly attended a school in inner city Melbourne at the age of 9. My new school mates invited me to play some football at lunch time, but when I got there, I asked where the football was. It was a football, but not as I knew it.

While I soon moved back to the country and never played the “new” football I had been introduced to again, the seeds had been planted. I had learnt that other games do exist. They weren’t better or worse, just different. In the end I adopted another “foreign” sport, basketball as my game of choice.

It wasn’t until the 1998 World Cup that I started to finally take notice of the game loved by billions in the world. Like much of Australia, I thought the Socceroos were a great chance of making it to the finals in France, with only Iran standing in our way. Unfortunately, it wasn’t yet our time, with the lasting memory of Mark Bosnich being left on the ground as the equaliser went past him to leave Australia short after being so close.

Moving to Melbourne in 1998 to go to university, I met a lot of people passionate about football and looking forward to the World Cup. It rubbed off on me. I watched a lot of matches during that World Cup and from that point on became a big fan of international football.

That passion for the international game didn’t translate into me becoming a fan of the local game however. The local league, the NSL, was in shambles with fighting and ethnic violence among the fans. It didn’t encourage the new fan to get involved.

When it was time for internationals though, I was back on board. Qualifying for the 2002 World Cup was once again seen as our chance to make it to the world stage, however like ’98, our boys fell at the last hurdle. It seemed the most talented generation of Socceroos since the 70’s was destined to never make the big time.

Once the 2002 World Cup rolled around though, many forgot about the disappointments of our team and enjoyed an immensely entertaining tournament – for the first time ever in a time zone which gave us prime time viewing. The big games were even televised on a major commercial television station. It seemed that Australia was finally catching on to the world game. It wouldn’t last.

With the NSL still in strife, the major Australian codes quickly regained the ascendency and football was relegated to a side note once again, This time, however, I continued to become more of a fan of the game itself, watching more European club football, and taking interest in the news that Australian club football was finally starting to talk about a makeover.

In 2005 I finally packed up my bags and headed out to see some of the world. When Australia finally qualified – in a gripping penalty shootout – for the 2006 World Cup, I was working in an insurance office in England, getting text message updates from my friends. While my new colleagues thought I was crazy, I was ecstatic – they’d finally made it.

By the time the 2006 World Cup rolled around I was living in Scotland. Being a backpacker, I had many other backpacker friends and as such, every game had some interest to somebody in our circle. So for a month we hit the local sports pubs watching game after game.

I actually managed to get to a warm up game between South Korea and Ghana, and while nothing was on the line, it was great to be able to see the passionate fan bases of both teams come out and support their teams as they got ready for the big event.

Australia’s first shot at the finals in 32 years was successful, despite the misery at the end. Cahil sparked 3 goals in less than 10 minutes to come from behind against Japan, while a tense and sometimes spiteful 2-all draw against Croatia was enough to see us through the final 16. While the final 16 match against Italy ended in bitter disappointment, Australia had announced itself on the world stage.

Since then the revamped local competition – now called the A-League – has gone from strength to strength, and upon my return to Australia in 2008 I even attended a game of the Melbourne Victory. The Victory are also about to get a new stadium – the first purpose built major soccer stadium in Melbourne.

The Australian team has evolved too, now part of the Asian federation, the team has a chance to play together more often, in more meaningful competitions, and dominated qualifying for this coming World Cup, as well as next year’s Asian Cup.

For now, the Socceroos prepare for just their 3rd World Cup Finals appearance, and their second in succession, and the first test – 3 time World Cup champions Germany on Sunday.
While for the second straight time, I’m out of Australia for the World Cup, I know that an increasing number of my countrymen are supporting the team and are ready to enjoy the biggest sporting event the world has to offer.

Bring on Friday!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

NBA Tour Part 2 - The Worst Experience, Detroit

I’ve always said, that the worst day travelling and watching sport, is always going to be better than the best day at work.

Sure, there are times when that theory is going to be pushed to the limits. My worst day – or to be more precise night – travelling so far has been when I had my wallet stolen in Boston, shortly before having to get on a bus to Montreal, only to then be held at the border for eight hours waiting for the immigration office to open. Luckily though, that has been the worst of it, although one weekend of my NBA tour through North America, has come close.

In trying to get to games at all 29 NBA cities, there is going to be some that are not really built for travellers. One of these, is Detroit.

Now I know Detroit was once a great city. Home of the US car manufacturing industry, as well as the home of Motown Records, which gave us some of the greatest musical acts of the 20th Century. Their basketball team – the Pistons – were also once great, winning back to back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990 with Isiah Thomas and the “Bad Boys”, and another in 2004 with Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups.

I think its safe to say though, that Detroit’s best days – both on the court and off it – are well behind it.

The American automotive industry isn’t what it used to be, which has resulted in the city of Detroit halving its population in the last 50 years. This leaves the city feeling like a virtual ghost town with crumbling boarded buildings, horrible roads and a bit of an eerie feel for the tourist.

Its really not set up for the backpacking type traveller either. There were no backpacking hostels – not that I really expected one – so I treated myself to a four-star hotel (through a cheap booking website obviously). When getting off the bus I discovered two other issues – the city is massively sprawled out, and lacking in public transport. Both of these issues are obviously due to it being built around the car, but don’t make it easy for the traveller without a car.

When finally making it to the hotel – much nicer than anything I normally stay in – I was keen to get out and see the town. I was promptly told by the concierge (I know, an actual concierge, I thought they only had those in movies) that I “didn’t want to go out around this part of town”. Great.

Getting to the game the next day wouldn’t be easy either. I could attempt the public bus, which I’d been assured would take me at least 2 hours due to it being a Sunday, r I could get a cab for $50. Normally you can be sure I’ll take the cheap option, but on this one occasion I decided I just wanted to get to the game.

Once at the game, all of the problems with the city of Detroit went away. This was what I was here for – the hoops. While it wasn’t the most intriguing match up I’m hooked on NBA basketball, and this is what I do.

Unfortunately, like the city of Detroit, the Pistons have been crumbling for some time. After winning the NBA championship in 2004, and enjoying a couple more trips to the Conference Finals, the Pistons lost Ben Wallace and traded on court general, Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, resulting in the team being a shadow of its former self.

With the team well and truly in rebuilding mode, their match against the Philadelphia 76ers was never going to be a clash of the titans. Detroit managed to win the game 88-81, and while the game was far from the best I’ve been to, you could tell the crowd still love their team. The hard nosed bad boys of Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, Bill Lambier, Rasheed Wallace and company are all gone, and have been replaced with Charlie Villenueva, Ben Gordon and Kwame Brown – hardly inspiring replacements.

Long periods of success create long lasting fans, but like the city of Detroit, the Pistons are going to have to give the fans a reason to keep coming back while they’re going through tough times, otherwise the Palace of Auburn Hills will become another of Detroit’s crumbling buildings.

While Detroit would undoubtedly be the least favourite place I’ve gone on my NBA tour so far and I cant imagine a situation where I’d ever want to go back, I am glad I went – if for no other reason than it has gotten me one step closer to my goal.

And hey, it still beats any day at work.

Next week I take a break from the NBA Tour series to focus on the big sporting event of the year – the 2010 FIFA World Cup.