CC Issue 10 / Sport

Is Your Ten Half Empty or Half Full?

To the surprise of many a faithful reader, I must reveal that this humble columnist secretly takes great pleasure in nothing other than a good moan. Whether it be a complaint about flashing advertisements at football grounds, the horror of adding words such faux-hawk to one’s vocabulary or simply the general nuisance of professional athletes using social networks and the subsequent he-said-she-said melodrama, it doesn’t matter – I thoroughly enjoy moaning about everything.

With this in mind I’ve determined, in an effort of self-betterment and progress, to challenge myself to recall a few instances of pure enjoyment, without criticism or censure. No doubt these moments came in the throes of youthful folly, so I will go ahead and order these memories chronologically. And since the good editor of this esteemed publication can’t resist telling every stranger on the street this is the tenth issue, I shall relay ten moments of televised sporting joy. For the benefit of your sanity, and my own, I present merely the first five. The latter half will feature in the next issue.

1. The World Cup (1986, 1990, 1994)

What greater sporting spectacle is there compared to the World Cup? So fittingly my first sporting memory begins here.

The 1982 World Cup took place during the second month of my existence so I can’t reasonably claim to any memory of that tournament. But then four years later came the controversial Hand of God and the phenomenal Goal of the Century – none of which I can remember either.

In 1986 I was four years old and my parents and I lived in Telford Gardens in Kowloon Bay. One afternoon my father and I found ourselves locked out of the house. Thankfully a coworker of my father, a Brazilian as it so happened, also lived at Telford. As we waited for my mother to return I remember sitting in that strange, cramped apartment and watching, on the possibly the world’s smallest television screen, the first sporting event in my young life.

Nothing specific stands out from that unknown match, but imprinted on my young mind was the iconic combination of yellow shirts and blue shorts; the great green expanse of the football field. I had no idea regarding the rules and only the slightest knowledge of my own existence, but from that moment on I’ve been hooked on watching twenty two young men running around a field lumping a ball about.

Four years later and my family had moved to a slightly larger flat on Broadcast Drive in Kowloon Tong. We needed the extra room as there were now five of us in total, a sister and brother having joined the tribe. My father worked with the lower class and immigrants from the mainland; part of this work was with the youth of that class. Inevitably that would involve no small number of goo wak jai, the young grunts of the triads.

As an eight year old I could only stay up and watch the first match of the day during Italia ’90, the later matches kicking off well after midnight. On many nights I went to bed as my father continued watching with guests, sometimes youth from the church community. One morning when I awoke I found, to my great surprise, a dozen or so young men strewn about the living room; now, with their shirts discarded in the heat of the tropical summer, they revealed the mass of their triad tattoos – dragons, eagles, angry gods. In some strange way the illicit nature of those rebellious tattoos and post-bedtime matches branded a sporting addiction onto my soul.

My only other lasting memory of this tournament was simply how much I disliked West Germany. I hated them so much that my memory has completely rewritten the history books to cast Frank Rijkaard as the victim of Rudi Voller’s hygienic deficiencies – in truth, of course, Rikjaard spat on Voller. Maradona was God then, and to see him lose in the final to the cheating, diving Huns was horrible. Thankfully I had a Panini sticker collection to distract me from the tragedy.

In 1994 I adopted Italy as my favourite team. They squeaked through the group stages but then Roberto Baggio dominated the knock out stages and, despite not necessarily playing free-flowing football, they provided the most dramatic moments that summer.

I was in the US during the tournament but would never have known it other than the convenient and constant television coverage. Nobody in the small town of Petaluma, California gave a shit about the foreign circus on US soil. That didn’t stop me and I watched almost every single match; much, no doubt, to my aunt and uncle’s horror. I even somehow managed to skip church the day of the final to watch Baggio’s tragic penalty shoot out miss against Brazil in the final. I’ve no idea how, as a twelve year old, I convinced my parents to allow this, but I celebrate it now as the foundation of my atheism. Seriously though, the ’94 tournament has many fond memories – Hagi, Stoichkov, Baggio, Bebeto’s celebration – as well as tragic ones – Escobar, Baggio again, and the final fall of Maradona’s playing career.

Sadly I haven’t cared for a World Cup since ’94. In 1998 and 2006 I just didn’t care about international football and despite watching every single match of 2002 and 2010 no match, team or players really stood out. Here’s to hoping 2014 will break the mould.

2. Chicago Bulls Three-Peat (1991, 1992, 1993)

At the height of its popularity the NBA rivaled the combined appeal of the Super Bowl, the World Series and the World Cup. The Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, and the Chicago Bulls – championship teams recognized all across the globe. The many rivalries of that era made the league – Magic vs. Bird, Reggie Miller vs. New York Knicks, Detroit’s Bad Boys vs. Everyone, Michael Jordan vs. No One. Yes, it really all comes down to the incredible talent Michael Jordan had and the mad chase from his competitors to keep up.

The greatest thing in sports is watching someone do something you have never seen before – the unexpected. To even begin to list all of the occasions Jordan did this would be a task far too time consuming, even for someone with as much disposable free time as this columnist, but I feel compelled to mention The Shot.

When Jordan left his marker for dead and hit that last second buzzer beater in the series decider against the Cleveland Cavaliers he was doing, in real life, what we all dreamed of doing in our backyards and bedrooms. That absolute fulfillment of childhood fantasy was expressed in Jordan’s celebration after nailing the shot. As Jordan jumps, what looks to be a mile in the air, and punches the air, Craig Ehlo, in the background, falls to the court in despair. It’s hard not to think that Jordan has just physically pummeled him.

The irony, of course, is that I always associated that image with the Bull’s Three-Peat success. In fact The Shot came two years before Jordan’s first NBA Championship. Still, it hardly matters. Jordan was the sporting icon – a champion before he ever won a championship and a legend before the ink had left the pen.

3. Super Bowl XXVII (1993)

Super Bowl Sunday in Hong Kong is actually Super Bowl Monday. So in order to watch the game I had to skip school on Monday morning. Like almost all these early memories I can’t remember anything of the actual game. I do remember it was a blow out and that I extremely disliked the Cowboys, espcially Troy Aikman. More than the game I remember Michael Jackson’s half time show. At that time my parents did not allow me to listen to pop music, nor did I really have the opportunity, but like everyone else in the known universe, I knew who Michael Jackson was and found his songs infectious.

Yet even more than Michael Jackson and my dislike for Dallas, I remember what happened when I finally got to school that day. I arrived around noon. My dad dropped me off shortly after the second half – the game was beyond the Redskins at that point – and told me, should anyone ask, that we had been working on mathematics. This was supposedly our little white lie as we had been calculating touchdown scores, etc. At any rate I walked into class in my usual disheveled state – tie missing and shirt untucked – only to find a substitute teacher, red in the face and looking ready to bite my head off.

I don’t know for sure if I had ever had Ms. Stott as a substitute prior to this incident, but I doubt it. What is certain, is that I’ve never forgotten her. Many years later, well into my secondary years, I was still frightened by the sight of her as I walked up Ede Road to the football pitch adjacent the school. Ms. Stott had short hair and, while her face wasn’t naturally ugly, when angry it grew so contorted it was an absolute nightmare to look at. The fact that her name was Ms., rather than Mrs. was not a fact overlooked by my young mind. There’s a reason she’s not married, I said to myself.

Her first reaction was to demand I leave the class room, tuck my shirt in, put on my tie and knock prior to re-entry. Once I had done so she proceeded to interrogate me with uninhibited venom. Who are you? Why are you walking in so late? Why couldn’t your father help you with mathematics over the weekend?

The cheeky lad that I was, I assumed she’d be gone the next day. Sadly my teacher was seriously ill and we had Ms. Stott for weeks. I suppose none of this has anything to do with an American Football game but then maybe that’s why I stayed away from the sport for so long.

3. College Bowl Games (1989, 1994, 1999)

Another American Football memory, and another with absolutely no recollection of a match itself – you’ve probably realized by now my faculties of memory are totally useless.

When back in North Carolina my family would always spend New Years Day at my Grandmas. As we waited what seemed ages for a late, late lunch, the male members of the family would often camp out in the basement and watch whatever college bowl game was on television. As natives of North Carolina we had no strict footballing allegiance. Some chose the Tennessee Vols, some the Georgia Bulldogs, others Clemson or the South Carolina Gamecocks, but the state itself never had the same religious passion for college football as it did for basketball (no surprise given Duke, UNC, State, Wake Forest).

For that reason college football is forever associated with my grandmother’s country style green beans, homemade biscuits and gravy soaked pork chops – all of which seemed to melt in your mouth faster than butter on a hot skillet. My only recollections are vague memories of schools’ colours – Notre Dame’s golden helmets, Standford’s cardinal red, Michigan Wolverine’s frightening yellow and blue streaks and of course Miami’s famous orange and green U. At that age I was unaware of the revolution occurring at The U, but I was certainly aware they had an awful lot of merchandise at Walmart for a Florida school.

Last winter, back in Hong Kong, my father and I watched Auburn overcome Phil Knight’s Oregon Duck’s in the BCS Championship game and nothing was the same. Sure, it was football. Sure, it was entertaining. Sure, the South did us proud. But all the other bullshit – Cam Newton’s dad, Phil Knights $300 million plus in donations to Oregon University, all the ridiculous hype – made the experience completely unlike it was two decades ago.

Yes, the game was in HD. Yes, the athletic skill on show was, as they say these days, on a whole ‘nother level. I suppose it was youthful naivety, but hell I’d rather be hiding in my Grandma’s basement, snarfing down her biscuits – slathered in butter and maple syrup – and passing out during the day’s umpteenth anonymous bowl game oblivious to everything but a bunch of kids slamming into each other.

4. Rugby World Cup (1995)

When Americans who don’t know anything about rugby find out that I like rugby they invariably ask if I’ve seen Invictus. Upon replying in the negative they express surprise and enthusiastically recommend that I would very much enjoy it. “Well, I actually watched that World Cup.” In an affront to common sense they ignore my comment and go on discussing the merits of the Hollywood film.

I spent that summer of 1995 with my family in Malaysia. We would often escape Hong Kong’s scorching August to the moderate climate of the Cameron Highlands. At the mission’s bungalow we stayed with other guests, missionaries serving all over Asia and from every corner of the world – English, Scots, Irish, Kiwis and, of course, South Africans. The excitement and anticipation over the tournament spread all across the colonies and former colonies even at that early stage of the World Cup. It’s hard to imagine that, at the time, it was only the third Rugby World Cup.

As a football mad kid I can’t remember much of the actual rugby, only the specific memories of the opening match between South Africa and Australia and the grand finale between the Springboks and All Blacks. What I do remember is how everyone staying at the Bungalow had gathered around the television. The importance was more than evident. This was more than just a rugby match. The world was watching Nelson Mandela’s new South Africa. And yet it was a great sporting spectacle, featuring sporting giants like Francois Pienaar and Jona Lomu – and the colossus of Ellis Park was nothing to sniff at either. I knew next to nothing about rugby but I watched every single minute of that match along with despondent Kiwis, proud non-white South Africans, impartial Brits and my fellow clueless Americans. And I’ll never watch Invictus.

5. FA Cup (1996)

You know how it’s impossible to completely convey your true feelings for that which you love unconditionally? All you can do is blubber out a few incoherent words and do your best to withhold the tears. Yes, that is Manchester United in the 1990’s for me. Hell, who am I kidding, that is Manchester United period.

Although I had been watching English club football for six years and followed Manchester United for much of that time, the 1996 FA Cup Final really sparked my interest in what has now become a terrible obsession. Manchester United, only recently crowned with success after so many years in the wilderness, featured a young homegrown side against the megaliths they had overturned, Liverpool Football Club. Old guards like Rush, Barnes, Palister and Irwin faced off against the young talent of Folwer, McManaman, Giggs and Beckham. With the addition of Gallic twist in a certain Eric Cantona the match had all the shaping of a classic. In the end the prematch suits of Liverpool caused more excitement than the actual football on display, but a late cracker from Cantona – in a season of so many late crackers from Cantona – sealed United’s second double in three years.

As David James spilled the ball and King Eric delicately readjusted himself to send a half volley straight through a swarm of players, I felt intoxicated with the greatest drug in the world. This was the first match I knew United were my team and felt thoroughly the satisfaction of victory. The match as a whole might not have been much for the neutral, but I was no longer neutral. United were The Religion, Cantona was God, Ferguson a Mastermind and I was a Disciple.

***

This column was nearly hijacked by – besides my fiendish impulse to laziness – two sporting disasters over the weekend. First was the insanity of the basketball game between UNC and Michigan State. Nothing strange about that you say. No, except they played each other on a mother fucking aircraft carrier. The Carrier Classic. They played in front of the fucking President and First Lady. And people still whine and complain about the controversies of the “student-athlete”, the commercialism in college sports, and the plague of ego-mania in athletes these days? On Friday night’s game the two teams wore camouflaged versions of their uniforms – absolute stark raving madness. And here most reasonable sporting folk thought England had gone poppy mad with regards to their tiff with FIFA over the Spanish friendly prior to Remembrance Day. In comparison they seem calm and rational. Let’s just say that all the hoo-rah shit almost stopped me from watching the SEC football match up Florida vs. South Carolina on Saturday…almost stopped me…

Secondly, and I don’t know which is the worse of the two, but Manny Pacqiao beat Juan Manuel Marquez. Looking at the odds prior to the fight this would not come as much of a surprise. But for anyone who has seen the fight, aside from Pacqiao’s entourage and the judges, it is a uncontestable fact that Pacqiao did not do nearly enough to win that fight. When it was announced the first judge ruled 114-114, I was shocked but resigned to the fact that the final ruling would probably end with a draw. But when the last two judges ruled for the Filipino champion I was flabbergasted. And it was not only myself, but the entire crowd at the MGM. The UK broadcast that I watched cut short the post-fight interview with Pacqiao because the crowd was booing so loudly you couldn’t hear anything else. I joked with Mei that the bookies would be happy with the result just as the British pundits cut into a half an hour tirade against the money men and promoters who would benefit, all the while providing the necessary caveats and qualifiers to avoid any libel cases. But the disappointment was evident. Marquez fought brilliantly against all the odds and deserved more than an added loss to his record.

So what was the saving grace of the weekend? Munster and Northampton’s brilliant battle in the first round of pool matches in the Heineken Cup. Northampton led, away from home, by two points with only a couple minutes to play before Munster persevered through over fourty phases to score a drop goal, well after the eighty minutes had passed. That gave me some hope…

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