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.

Five things from…Belgium 1 South Korea 0

The second set of games so far this week have produced little in the way of excitement bar the antics of the Mexican coach, with all of the drama taking place when I have been in meetings in the office. But that was surely going to change tonight?  Whilst Belgium were through, and only a miracle meaning that the South Korean’s could go through, it was a game full of promise.  Or was I just too excited by the prospect of 90 minutes drinking a variety of Belgium beers?

1. It must be a bad game – When the TV producer decides to cut to a slow-motion replay OF A MEXICAN BLOODY WAVE.  Not content with us having to view the game through the emotions of various young girls in the crowd, the recognisable cheer as the ridiculous wave passes around the stadium sends TV producers into raptures about how fanatical these fans are.  Bad enough at normal speed, but to see it in slow-motion is unbearable. Every minute or so the cameramen found a female in the crowd wearing face paint and pulling a silly face.

image2. There’s no need for that – I know they are in Rio and I know it is hot but who suggested it would make good television to put the ITV team in shorts??  Children up and down the country will now be having nightmares about seeing Gordon Strachen’s legs. Fortunately someone must have had a word during the first half because at the break they had put their strides back on.

3. The Red Devils – Once again, why are BOTH teams playing in their away kits?  The Red Devils versus the Red Tigers yet neither are wearing red.  What’s next?  A special Knockout round lime green number? Simple rule in future – one kit allowed – if there is a clash of shirts then one team plays in skins.

4. Taking it for granted – Two weeks of wall to wall football comes to an end tonight when the tournament takes a break for 24 hours.  Shocking scheduling – Who is this tournament for, after all?  The players or the TV audiences? In living rooms up and down the country, couples will be forced to have real conversations.  Or you could do what I am doing and going to the pub, as CMF automatically assumes the football is on every night.

5. Technically his foot is offside – No Andy, he was OFFSIDE.  Your foot is still part of your body. If you cannot say anything to add any value then please just shut up.

The Beer World Cup

Back after a brief period of abstinence, this was one we had been looking forward to all week.  A quick visit to the Belgium Beer company at half time saw a number of the countrymen make it into my squad for the evening (i.e, my carrier bag) to line up alongside OB, the South Korean challenge.

Floris Passion White 11 OB 1

The Kit World Cup – Day 14

Adidas – 40pts
Nike – 40
Puma – 28
Lotto – 10
Burrda – 6
Marathon – 4
Uhlsport – 1

My favourite shirt

“How take in steam
Recall your dream
Hey Camisas
Your favourite shirt is on the bed
Do a somersault on your head”

Favourite Shirts (Boy meets Girl) – Haircut 100 – 1981

I thought I would never get to mention Haircut 100 and football in the same post but earlier this week I thought I had lost my favourite football shirt.  We all have one don’t we? (worried look around the room), one that holds special memories for us, that we wear to remember a special moment or occasion.  It is like a comfort blanket, a superstitious chattel that only we know why we have kept it and what the rules are in terms of wearing it.

So back to my shirt.  My favourite shirt is a South Korean shirt.  It is a sort of pinkish/orange colour and was the exact shirt won by the Tigers in their 2002 World Cup campaign.  It is made of a starchy material, completely unlike the shirts of today but designed to repel the sweat from the near 100% humidity.  And the reason why it is my favourite?  Because how I came to get it.

Back in 2002 I was working for an American Internet company.  The pay was fantastic, the perks were brilliant and my travel was all Business Class.  With offices to look after in Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris I was raking up air miles like there was no tomorrow.  Alas, it appeared that the company was more concerned about the bonsai tree fridges for the 7th floor than paying people like the tax man and so on the last day of May 2002 they went bust, owing hundreds of millions of Euros.  We were all out of work, as we were told by the  administrators at 11am.  Was we upset?  A bit but we had the small matter of the World Cup due to start in a few minutes in the pub across the road.  Senegal v France, a few pints of Guinness and a full English and the world was alright.

I acted quick.  A couple of phone calls to competitors and I had sorted a new job by the time that Papa Bouba Diop had scored the opening goal.  The only downside was that I couldn’t start for 2 weeks.  What would I do? I called CMF and told her the news.  She jokingly said “why don’t you go to the World Cup”.  I laughed but then opened my wallet and that Lufthansa Miles and More card just smiled at me. 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

Turning Japanese…I don’t think so

2002 is probably my favourite World Cup for a number of reasons.  Four years after I had attended my first tournament in France I was determined to not miss this one.  I had never been a fan of Asia as a region, although I have to admit I do have a penchant for far eastern ladies.  My mother, the original CMF once said at a family meal that she didn’t like anything in the Far East because of all that “Plinky plonky music”…Yes, my mother thinks that life in Japan, China and Korea is accompanied by some medieval Musak.

In 2001 I got the “best job in the world”.  Somehow I managed to blag a role that essentially saw me have to fly around Europe, first class all week, collecting air miles in return for a very fat salary and the occasional report on how certain sales teams were doing.  This was the second coming of the Internet bubble and you could not do better than working for a US internet company who literally threw money at everything.  In fact they were throwing too much money at everything and as 2001 became 2002 everything started to unravel.  The signs were quite evident…offices suddenly closing, doors being locked from the inside in others to stop the bailiffs and then wages not being paid. Continue reading