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.
The 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!
An 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.
Ignatiy 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.