Go on my Son


You make your own luck in this world, goes the saying and to an extent I’d agree. I’m a firm believer that luck is no more than a by-product of good planning, hard work and patience. In terms of being in the right place at the right time for football, I can wheel out a few good stories – many revolving around work trips where there just happened to be a game on whilst I was visiting a particular city (only 19 slices of “luck” in 2014) but on the other hands I’d also missed out on a few games. Los Angeles, India and Australia were three such destinations that fell into the “must try harder” pot.

Last summer I’d had the pleasure in visiting Australia for the first time. We’d just made a big investment into Melbourne so I traveled down under to see how they were getting on. The trip took place slap-bang in the middle of the World Cup which was both a blessing and a curse. Plenty of football on the TV, albeit it at stupid o’clock, but the domestic leagues had shut down for the duration of the tournament. Whilst watching Australia’s nail-biter against Holland in a Gentleman’s Club (not my idea but when needs must) and England’s painful demise against Uruguay in a casino was all very well, it wasn’t the real deal. We did manage to snag (tip for you travelers – snag refers to a sausage in Australia, not a catch) some tickets to watch AFL at the Melbourne Cricket Ground which was a great night out but it wasn’t real football despite was any Victorian (resident of the state of Victoria and not a very very very old person) will tell you.

So when a request came through on the bat phone to go back to Australia to present at a conference or two I of course consulted the fixtures before I said yes. As luck would have it Melbourne would be hosting not one, two but three major sporting events in the same week in the same place. Luck? Absolutely. Australia was hosting the Asian Cup across four cities (plus the town of Newcastle) and in the week I’d be arriving there would be two games as the very descriptive Melbourne Rectangular stadium, sandwiched between a Big Bash cricket match at the MCG and the Australian Open tennis championships. Somewhere in there I had to fit in some client meetings and delivering a key-note speech at two seminars.

16144165128_1e8c8e5d5c_kThe moving of the first event from Melbourne to Sydney meant I’d be missing not only the Jordan v Japan game as well as the very important Big Bash game between play-off chasing Melbourne Stars and already qualified Perth Scorchers. Hmm. But on the plus side I would be having lunch under the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a view on the Opera House. Was that any consolation? What do you think? But at least I’d had the forethought to grab tickets for Australia’s triumphal quarter final tie back in Melbourne on the Thursday night. After winning their opening two games convincingly all they needed was a draw against South Korea to ensure the festival of sport would continue in Melbourne. Of course, they lost meaning that we’d now be watching South Korea v Uzbekistan. Someone up there wasn’t playing fair.

Exactly thirty hours after leaving TBIR Towers I touched down at Sydney airport. It doesn’t matter how comfy the seats are, or the choice of films and TV shows, 19 hours sitting on any airplane isn’t fun. Boredom sets in relatively quickly, and if you happen to be sitting next to Mr Snorey Smelly Feet well good luck in trying to get some sleep! I was well excited to be going to Sydney, even if it was only for 24 hours. It’s one of those cities where you see the icons, the sights and have a mental image of what it’ll be like to be standing in front of them. One of my Australian colleagues summed up the difference between the two cities as follows:-

“Sydney’s like your pin up fantasy girlfriend” a work colleague told me, Great looking, with world class boobs you’d want to show off to your mates. But Melbourne’s your childhood sweetheart you will always love, and will always love you when you make that walk of shame back late at night”

As if the sunshine, the scenery and the thrill of experiencing something new weren’t enough, another glimmer of good news reached us. Our final meeting of the day had been cancelled, meaning we could fly back to Melbourne a few hours early MEANING the Big Bash was back on!

16336240445_c1544b231b_kAn hour after I landed at Melbourne I was entering the finest cricket ground in the world. Free transport from the city centre, tickets for £10, drinking encouraged. This was like watching our original Twenty20 competition before the counties got very greedy. As you’d expect the crowd was boisterous fuelled by the music and fireworks that accompanied an away team wicket (there was only 2) and a home team six (there wasn’t many of those at first either). Melbourne Stars, captained by Luke Wright and featuring the leading run scorer in the competition, Kevin Pieterson, needed to spank the visitors to have any hope of a home semi-final (and thus another game to watch at the weekend!). With 6 overs gone in their return innings, chasing an impressive Perth score of 179/2, it was all going wrong for The Stars. Wright fell very cheaply then Pieterson arrived at the crease to great expectation, only to depart 1 ball later to ridicule. He was, after all as the chap next to me said, “An arrogant Pommie bastard”. Fair point.

It was tempting to head off early, with it being obvious to even the most ardent fan that 150 more runs in 11 overs wasn’t going to happen. But as the sun fell, Peter Handscomb took centre stage, hitting 108 not out including five sixes in the last few overs to see the Stars home to the most unlikely victory with 3 balls to spare.

Cricket ticked off it was time for the main event. The Asian Cup organising committee had also bet big on it being Australia and had upped ticket prices according (although AU$69 or £35 for a top-priced ticket is hardly Premier League pricing). Demand was high initially although the (legal) secondary market picked up once it was clear it would be the Koreans rather than the Australians who would be in town. With a few thousand tickets still left to shift on the day, the organisers cut ticket prices to stimulate demand, although their claims of a sell out were premature with a few thousand seats empty still at kick off.

Football is one of the biggest growing sports in Australia. Despite the time zone difference and a decrease in the number of Australian players plying their trade in England, the Premier League still pulls in the audiences and some papers dedicate a full page a day to the goings on the other side of the world. However, with the U.S. open in town, the Asian Cup had passed many locals by despite the Australians coming into the tournament as joint favourites with Japan, who they lost to in the last Asian Cup final in Doha in 2011.

The Rectangular Stadium normally goes by the name of AAMI Park and is the newest sporting venue on the Melbourne skyline. Opened in 2010 it is now home to two football teams, Melbourne Victory and another Manchester City franchise, Melbourne City as well as the rugby teams The Rebels (League) and The Storm (Union). Crowds for the tennis and football mingled outside the stadiums, with the Koreans, many dressing down for the occasion (not that anyone was complaining) coming out in huge numbers. We took our seats with a beer in each hand (Yep – that’s also allowed, as it is at all sports here) and looked forward to getting behind the White Wolves and whether they could pull off a shock. They’d came close to qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, losing in the Play-Offs. The tournament threatened shocks-a-plenty so could this be the their moment to shine?

South Korea 2 Uzbekistan 0 – The Rectangular Stadium – Thursday 22nd January 2015
It may have taken almost 110 minutes to finally wear down the White Wolves but the Fighting Tigers did their job and would be heading to Newcastle to take on the winner of Iran versus Iraq. As football matches go, this was up there with one of the best. The sight of the Uzbekistan players laying prostrate on the field after Bayer Leverkusen’s Korean centre-forward Son Heung-Min broke the deadlock in the last minute of the first period of extra time.

They’d given their all, even had a few chances of their own in the dying seconds where they could have won the game. They’d be able to return home with their heads held high but this tournament was only ever going to be won by one of three countries win this tournament and Uli Stielke’s men were one of those. Their last tournament victory was over 50 years ago but this time the German had added maturity to the squad that grabbed Olympic Bronze in London in 2012.

16339947472_63c8828689_zIgnatiy Nesterov was the stand out star of the show. The White Wolves keeper pulled off save after save in normal time to deny the likes of Lee Keun-hoo and Nam Tae-hee although some poor finishing also conspired to keep the score goal-less.

It was good to see the locals getting into the spirit. A group of young girls all dressed in Aston Villa shirts gave some glamour to a dull subject, whilst a Man Utd fan wearing nothing more (it appeared) than a slightly over-sized shirt with “Horny Devil” on the back was keeping someone in a constant supply of beers as she skipped up and down the steps. It was a fine evening for sightseeing I can tell you – even ignoring the Melbourne skyline peaking over the top of the deconstructed football stands(take a leather football, cut it open, make a short of hat and that’s the sort of shape if the stands).

Uzbekistan were hanging on as the ninety minutes ticked down. They put everyone behind the ball although Turaev wasted a great opportunity with a back-post header with 12 minutes remaining, and then danger man Rashidov teed up Nam who completely fluffed his lines.

In extra time you simply had the feeling that it would be Korea’s night and in the 104th minute the Uzbeki full back, and winner of the most expensive shirt back, Shukhrat Mukhammadiev lost possession as he dribbled out of his own penalty area, allowing Kim Jin-su to run at the defenders and his deflected cross was nodded home, Brooking-style, by Son Haung-Min.

Despite their attempts to pull themselves back into the game, Uzbekistan simply ran out of steam. Whilst a second goal, a superb effort from Son again that saw him collapse with a mixture of cramp and emotion.

It was a brave effort, but one that ultimately saw the White Wolves fall short. It was a mark though of how far they had come as a nation. Their focus will now be on qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. With three of the four places almost a shoe-in for Australia, Japan and South Korea, they’d be potentially fighting it out with the other quarter-finalists Iran and China as well as the surprise packages who reached the last four, United Arab Emirates with their bags of money and Iraq with their bags of spirit.

To complete my trip we headed down to the Australian Open on a vet hot and sunny Sunday. Tickets were plentiful for ground passes at just £30, which gave you access for all bar the two shoe courts. Take note Wimbledon. There was none of this stuffy attitude we see in the UK, with most fans heading to the Heineken village where live music, alcohol and decent food provided a great accompaniment to the tennis in the big screens. Australia knows how to throw a party and doesn’t ever need an excuse to throw one.

Never mind the cricket, here come the Socceroos!


After the success of our two Arabic adventurers in bringing us their Asian Diary from the first week of the Asian Cup we were delighted to secure the services for one game only of Jon Lawrence, author of Astoldby,me.  as well as being an ex-colleague, he is one of the most travelled men I know so who better to report on the semi-final featuring his native Australia and Uzbekistan.

It was purely by chance that I found myself in Doha for the Asian Cup semi-final clash between the Socceroos and Uzbekistan’s White Wolves. Just a few days earlier, I had been told by my employer that I was required to spend a week with our client here while one of my colleagues installed their new system.

I reluctantly admit that I had not been following the Asian Cup closely – I’d been very busy at work and the matches were on at ungodly hours of the morning (and not on free-to-air TV). I was only vaguely aware that it was even in Qatar.

A few minutes of research later, I was very excited, having discovered that my trip would coincide with the Semi-Finals, with the Socceroos looking much more positive under new coach Holger Osieck and about to tackle the Iraqis in the Quarters. Continue reading

Ladies and Gentlemen, Please be standing for the Asian Cup Awards


Fresh from returning from Doha, our reliable reporter Brian decided to condense a week’s fun in the desert into a few awards.  So over to you Brian.

Having now finished our trip to Qatar, we thought that in order to kill a few hours while waiting for our flights that we would dish out some awards concerning the seven games that we saw. So, drum-rolls at the ready, and here goes..

The Heroes of the Week Award goes to Will & Claudia, who were the transport co-ordinators without whose help we would still wondering around outside any of the stadiums that we visited, wondering how on earth we were going to get back to the hotel. Continue reading

Day 7: Our work here is done


Day 7 and it is time for our intrepid duo to head back home after a week in the desert.  But not before just one more game – and what a game too – Australia v South Korea. Over to you Brian.

Our work here is nearly done. Today is the final day for us here in Doha, and it’s been great. The weather has been excellent, we’ve not managed to spend that much (mainly because there hasn’t been much that either of us has wanted to buy), and the football has been ok as well. Our last game of the trip is probably the biggest of the week; Australia v South Korea.

So, looking back on our week, a summary. Clearly much work needs to be done. The transport has been a bit chaotic at times, and if this was to be the structure put in place for 2022, then it will all go horribly wrong. The idea of a mono-rail, or any type of railway may help, but is this going to be restricted to Doha? I can not see the necessary stadiums being built in one city, so they are going to have to be spread around the country. In that case, how do people get around? We’ve already heard that the infrastructure of the country needs to improve, so with the tournament coming here, perhaps that will happen. Car hire will be at a premium, and the cost of that will go up for the month. Continue reading

Day 6: You can always rely on a Honda


While Dan and myself were doing our research for this trip, we both hunted around various bookshops (both actual shops and online) for guide books to the region, and in particular Doha & Qatar as a whole. I was quite surprised to find that there wasn’t a lot out there for this country, as there seemed to be a guide book for almost everywhere else on the planet. Dan eventually found a small guide book, but that was about it.

Now we know why. If you like shopping, then you will be fine. Prices out here are actually quite cheap compared to back home. For example, taxi fares are really quite inexpensive but agree a price before you get in, and even food and drink is quite reasonable. We have eaten in the hotel on one occasion, and that was expensive, but it was worth every penny. The big shopping malls (and they are big) will keep most keen shoppers entertained for several hours, which is lucky, as most stay open until mid-night. Try doing that at Lakeside.

However, if shopping is not your thing, then perhaps you are a beach person. Many hotels have a private beach, and so you spend your days getting a tan, or at least not doing very much. You may have to keep an eye out for jelly-fish, but there is generally a life guard on duty, and from our time here, the staff at our hotel are more than happy to assist in almost any way that they can. Continue reading

Day 5: Who needs one mascot when you can have five


Our men in the desert are desperatly trying to find things to do apart from the football in Doha.  But they are struggling.  It’s got so bad they had started having flashbacks to previous football tournaments.

There have been some interesting mascots for tournaments throughout the years. Of course there is the legendary World Cup Willie from 1966, which probably today wouldn’t get past any kind of scrutiny. There was the small orange called Naranjita from Spain 82, and what looked like a chilli wearing an out-sized sombrero for Mexico 86. Then of course, we had the red, white and green lego figure for Italia 90. As for the London Olympics next year, what on earth were they thinking? What I am trying to get across here is that mascots are everywhere for these kinds of tournaments, but what purpose do they actually serve?

It’s all very well having them, but for most people attending these things, they have no meaning whatsoever. I suppose they are mainly for kids, as they adorn shirts and other bits of merchandise. Oh hang on, we’ve been down this one before.

For this tournament, the organisers have gone to town and gone for a family of five mascots. Yes that’s right, five. There are five different venues for this competition, and I suppose that they have got a different one for each. Certainly the tickets for each venue are a different colour, so I would guess that is why there are so many. However for the World Cup, does this mean that if they have 12 venues, there are going to be 12 different mascots? That’s a whole team plus one sub. What kind of competition only allows one sub nowadays? The mascots are a family of Jerboas, which is an animal found in the Arabian desert, in case you were wondering. You learn something new every day. Continue reading

Day 4: We built this city


Today we sent Brian and Dan out into the centre of Doha to find out exactly what there is to do….judge for yourself whether you could cope with a week here?  Brave lads.

Everywhere you look in Doha, there is construction work going on. A quick scan of the city skyline shows at least a dozen cranes working on ever growing buildings. It’s a hive of activity, and given the progress of them, these have been going on for some time.

It would be more than a touch arrogant in a way to assume that this is all for the arrival of the World’s biggest single sporting event in 11 years time. Most of the buildings look like they are for more office space, so I can’t imagine that many fans will be heading for these to find somewhere to stay. Continue reading