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Posts Tagged ‘sport’

There’s a strange feeling for sports fans in Wellington these days. We turn to the back of the newspaper, and don’t ignore the sports pages. There’s no cringing any more, despite the fact that at the moment both the New Zealand Cricket Team, our regional rugby team, and our soccer/football team are all playing in major competitions. Against Australia. It’s always good not to have to cringe when we’re playing Australia.

The Wellington Phoenix football team is the only New Zealand team in the Australian professional league. They’ve had mixed results over the years, along with financial and other troubles, and have only once or maybe twice been contenders for the title. (Unlike NZ’s basketball team in the Australian professional league, which has won four of the last five years). Right now though, they are leading the table. It’s a good feeling.

The Wellington Hurricanes (yes, Wellington is the windy city) is my rugby team. It too has had very mixed results over the years in the Australia-New Zealand-South African regional competition. For several years, the slogan “Expect the Unexepcted” summed up what it was like to be a Hurricanes supporter. We were prepared for amazing performances or complete disasters. There was no consistency. So although 10-15 years ago I would occasionally go to a game, in more recent years I’ve lost interest (especially when some favourite players left the franchise), and it has been several years since I even watched a game on TV. But this year, with the return of a favourite player and a new coach, the Hurricanes are unbeaten after six games. We’re starting to hope. It’s a good feeling.

And then there’s cricket. I remember, back in the 1980s on a summer afternoon, we might settle in on the couch, make a day of it, and watch a cricket One Day International match. New Zealand seemed to hold its own in world cricket. Since then though, I’ve rarely taken much notice of the team, as it struggled internationally, and consistently put up pathetic performances. Despite the big bucks available to some if the players (thanks to the Indian professional league) and the media’s insistence on treating it like New Zealand’s second national sport (even when the numbers didn’t add up), it really seemed like a dying and insignificant sport in this country.

Until now. The Cricket World Cup, after the last two months throughout Australia and New Zealand, is coming to a conclusion. And wonder upon wonders, the New Zealand team (known as the Black Caps) is for the first time ever in the final. We demolished England and beat Australia in the pool round, got through the quarters against the West Indies, and with our hearts in our mouths, beat South Africa on the second last ball in the semifinals. Unbeaten in 14 matches. Now, tomorrow, we play Australia in the final. We’re not favourites, as they will be playing on their home turf. But we’re in for a chance. Win or lose, the cricket team has thrilled the country so far. And take it from me, the thrill is so much greater when it’s unexpected. I’m not really looking forward to the game tomorrow – the tension will be high. Which is why I’m posting this now, rather than Monday, when I’ll either be a bad loser, or a gloating winner. But right now? It’s a good feeling.

Update:    Yes, we lost. Australia, who we’d already beaten early in the competition, thrashed us. Still, we got 2nd, and that’s not bad when we came into the competition seeded 9th. That’s a good feeling. Though admittedly, not as good as winning would have been!

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White Out

On Saturday night, I went to my first live soccer/football match. It was a World Cup qualifier match between NZ and Bahrain, two of the world’s smaller countries. If NZ won, they would go to South Africa for the World Cup. The only other time we have been was Spain 1982. I am old enough to remember that. Most of the team playing were not.

NZers were basically brought up on rugby: where men are stoic, and don’t wear padding, where players are more likely to play through an injury than fake one (a hero, Buck Shelford, famously played on during a rugby test after suffering a torn scrotum), where (when I was growing up at least – sadly no longer) it wasn’t “done” to celebrate scoring (that was considered to be crass). So soccer, with its wild celebrations and hugging, and its blatant faking of injuries, has been in many ways anathema to our culture.

But times they are a-changing. Increasingly, rugby players and crowds are more emotional. We have watched too many American movies not to know how to whoop and cheer and whistle now. Or perhaps, we have too many British (in particular) immigrants who have brought the soccer culture of obsessive fans to our shores. After all, we had been invited to the rugby by immigrant Manchester U and Chelsea fans. They warned us that the crowd would not be staid at a football match, but loud, exuberant, and above all, passionate.

Still, and I don’t know if this is normal at football matches worldwide, every time a Bahrain player fell over and tried to milk a penalty or free kick by rolling around on the ground as if they were in agony, the crowd booed, or laughed. Personally, I felt like calling out “you poor little baby!” rather disturbingly showing my cultural conditioning, and succumbing to the power of the crowd. The first player to fall over lay on the pitch rolling around in “pain” until the free kick was awarded then, from a prone position flat on his back, arched his body and leapt to his feet in one single, cat-like, gymnastic movement. Such a clear, thumbing of the nose to the crowd and, I would think, the referee. That’s what I can’t understand about football. How do the referees fall for this? Do the players have no shame? Are they happy to present themselves as nothing but cry-babies?

Another guy went through such theatrics that the stretcher came out, he was lifted on to it and carried to the side. Ten seconds later he was off the stretcher and running back onto the field. For the rest of the game, every time he touched the ball he was booed. But each time they booed, the crowd laughed as well. I am pleased to say that, by and large, the NZ players didn’t resort to such antics. Perhaps they know our attitude towards fakes. Though to be fair, late in the second half the stretcher carried off one of the NZ players, who then promptly got off the stretcher and limped to the side, seemingly recovering rapidly!

The Bahrain supporters were directly in front of us. They were resplendent in red, even the women’s headscarves, and unrelenting in their flag-waving, singing and chanting and drum-beating. They were passionate in their support of their team. I guess anyone who travels halfway across the world to support a sports team is going to be passionate, especially coming to windy Wellington on a cool spring evening. The celebrations when they won a penalty shot were extraordinary, the men hugging and kissing in delight. The celebrations a few seconds later, when the NZ goalkeeper saved the day, saw the Bahrainis slump disconsolate in their seats, as all around them Kiwis went berserk.

New Zealand had never seen anything like it. Usually decked out in black to support our national teams, last night white was the colour. (Our rugby team is known as the All Blacks, the football team as the All Whites). I even saw one guy in a white hotel towelling robe. Innovative. And for the last 20 minutes of the game, hundreds if not thousands of bare-chested men were swirling their t-shirts around their heads, the entire stadium flickering, in encouragement and, ultimately, celebration.

As the 35,000 plus crowd swarmed out of the stadium, white and red supporters smiled and greeted each other, sleepy children were slung over their fathers’ shoulders, and strangers hugged each other.

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