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!

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