Watching the Socceroos

I’ve written absolutely zero about the World Cup in the lead up to it though, as always, I am a keen spectator. I think I probably watched every qualifying match the Socceroos played, as well as a random sampling of other games. Regardless I followed the results closely.

Coming into the World Cup had that native Aussie optimism that says we’re always a chance because we always have a red hot go. That’s a notion that gets pooh-poohed by the soccer snobs who subscribe to the view that craft and artistry count for more, but I’m confident enough to believe that we have enough craft to get by – our edge is our mentality. It won’t win us the cup, but it’s sufficient to cause the odd upset and progress beyond what most other pundits predict. Tough as it will be, I still think the Socceroos will progress to the next stage.

Our first match was on Saturday night. I joined Cheeseboy and his son (who is quite a player himself) at their place where over a bottle of wine we watched the game against France. The French are one of the big picks to win the whole shebang and have stars all over the park. I think I read they’re valued collectively at about $1.8 billion, whereas the Socceroos squad are valued at less than $180 million. Never a great respecter of reputations that meant fuck-all to most Aussies – the game isn’t played on paper.

As it turned out it was a compelling match. As expected France came on strong early, but Australia resisted. The thinking was the longer the French went without scoring the more pressure they would feel. At half-time the score was 0-0, with the Socceroos having asserted themselves more in the back half of the period.

Come the second half they looked the better team at times, but fell behind to a controversial, and probably incorrect, VAR penalty ruling. The French would have heaved a sigh of relief, but within minutes the scores were level again thanks to a penalty of our own.

Watching it there was the belief that Australia could pinch a win, but then a Paul Pogba shot took a deflection, hit the top bar, and bounced just inside the goal before out of it. We were down 2-1, with both goals decided by technology, and both with centimetres in it.

That was the final score. I know I’m biased, but we were pretty stiff. The penalty given was probably incorrect, and the legitimate goal was a matter of good fortune. We played determined, disciplined football, much as you expect from an Aussie team. As we always say, we were brave.

It was quite a contrast to the French team, who have style and talent and quality to burn, but play more as individuals, and indulge I what are – to Australian acts – shameful acts of staging. I was disgusted, as was the Dutch Cheeseboy, how even the slightest touch (and sometimes not even that) would result in a French player falling to the ground in alleged agony and the gullible ref whistling them a free kick. It’s pretty cheap, and borderline cheating.

France is a team I wouldn’t mind winning it in general, probably because I remember Zidane, one of my favourite players. I might re-think that now. Playing honest is an Australian virtue, and they didn’t do that.

Despite the loss the Socceroos can take a lot out of the game. They played well without winning, but the goal difference will work in our favour should France fire up against the other teams. We’re certainly capable of winning against both Denmark and Peru, in what will be very different games. The Danes were lucky winners against Peru, who I see as the real danger.

On to next Thursday when we take on Denmark. Will be watching.


The James curse

I just want to make the point that LeBron James is making a big bid towards being the clear GOAT, and that you’ve got feel for someone who has such a mighty heart, and such a poor team around him.

Against expectations the Cavs made it to the final against the Warriors. Both semis went the full seven games, and it was LeBron who just about single-handedly won it against the Celtics to make the final.

The first final was today. I followed it early and then lost track of it as work built up around me. I went to lunch for once in my life decided to sit down to eat it. Most days I don’t have any lunch – a habit formed out of poverty – or if I do it’s something I pick up and eat along the way. Today I wandered into a sparsely populated mall, saw some food that looked appetising, and on the spur of the moment chose to eat in (as it happens it was a Thai meal that was so bad I left it unfinished).

So anyway I’m sitting there picking at my food and I decide to check on the scores. It’s inside the last 5 minutes and the Warriors lead 100-94. I don’t have the NBA pass and so I’m relying on the score updates on the app, and glued to them as the Cavs create a few turnovers, LBJ scores, and they draw level, then ahead. It looks like they may actually win and I’m up for that – who likes the Warriors? – and besides, I’m rooting for LeBron. Much man-love there.

Then the Warriors draw level with 30 odd seconds on the clock, then draw a point ahead. I don’t know where the clock is at, I don’t know what’s happening on court, until it updates with 4 seconds left with the Cavs down by one and at the line for two free-throws. Spot these and they’ll be odds on.

I’m waiting, waiting, hitting refresh, then see the scores level as the first-free throw goes down. Again I’m waiting, waiting and then it refreshes with the news the second free-throw was missed, but there was an offensive rebound.

And I’m thinking fuck, if only it had’ve gone down but I’m waiting for the update thinking maybe the Cavs got fouled on the rebound or got a shot away but when the update comes through the scores are level and it’s FT.

I get up then. I know, I just know that the Warriors will cruise it through OT, and that’s what happens and my heart breaks for LeBron. What more can he fucking do? He’s carrying a whole fucking team and scored near enough half their fucking points. Give him a break someone. It’s his curse to be a truly great player with mediocre teammates around him.

I can’t see the Cavs winning the championship now, but if they do it’s all down to James and he can be truly called the greatest of all time then.

Sheeds, you legend!

Last night Kevin Sheedy was finally announced as a legend of the AFL. It’s hard to imagine anyone more worthy than him. He’s had a continuous involvement with the game since the mid-sixties, when he began playing for Richmond. He was a battler who became a star, first in the back pocket, then as a ruck-rover. By the end of his playing career he was rated so highly that he was ultimately named in Richmond’s team of the century.

That was only the start for Sheeds, and the much greater part of his football career lay ahead of him.

In 1981, not long out of the game, he was appointed as coach of Essendon Football Club. Essendon was one of the great clubs of the league, but had become conservative and mediocre. I remember because I sat in the stand most Saturdays and watched them take the field. There were some good wins in the seventies and promising moments, though nothing came of them. There were also some great players, and some who came in young who were destined to become greats.

Sheeds came at the right time. He was hungry and ambitious and full of ideas and energy. He was determined to shake up a club that had slumped into a stupor. It was a young team with a bunch of players who looked good on the outside, but had yet to grasp the essential physical elements of the game. They played pretty, but not hard.

I remember that season very well. It was one of the most exciting years of football I can remember. We played well early, but lost a bunch of close games until six games in we were 1 – 6. Sheedy threatened to pull on the boots and take the field, and no-one was certain that he wasn’t serious.

The next game we won, and the game after was against Collingwood at VFL park. I remember the game vividly. There was a big crowd and Collingwood went in as hot favourites, but we blew them away right from the first bounce. The footy was exhilarating, but no wonder given so many of the young players taking the field that day would become stars of the game – Tim Watson, Terry and Neale Daniher, Paul Van der Haar, Simon Madden, Merv Neagle, Glen Hawker, and so on.

That win was the second in a sequence of 15 wins in a row, and many of the wins memorable. We made a habit of coming from behind and snatching an unlikely win. A few times it looked like the run might be broken, but every time Sheeds would pull a rabbit out of the hat.

Perhaps the most memorable, and certainly the most famous of those victories were against Carlton at Princes Park. Carlton were the reigning premiers, and would go on to make it back to back. On that day they led by 4 goals with 20 minutes gone in the final quarter. Sheeds threw Neale Daniher forward and it was the matchwinning move. Playing against one of the greatest defenders ever, Bruce Doull, Daniher set-up goals and kicked them himself after strong marks. When the siren blew we’d won a famous victory (I wasn’t there that day, but remember listening to the last minutes sitting in a hot bath).

We were the hot team that year, but a slow-start and a final 5 left us behind the eight-ball. A loss, finally, in the last round left us vulnerable, and then we lost to Fitzroy in the elimination final.

That was the start of Sheedy’s reign, which was to go on for 27 years. In that time there was no-one more creative or innovative, he was the biggest personality, the most extravagant thinker, a visionary, and a coach touched by genius. At times it would backfire, but many more times his inspiration led to great victories – none more so than the 1984 grand final when a 24 point ¾ time deficit became a 24 point victory (a great victory, and one of my favourite ever games).

He made Essendon relevant again, and in time a powerhouse on and off the field. He made Essendon the club it is today, and along the way brought great success – the 1984 premiership, followed by 1985 (the best team I’ve ever seen), the unlikely and exhilarating premiership of 1993, and the inevitable victory of the 2000 invincibles (the second best team I’ve seen – they lost one game out of 25).

Sheedy is the father of the Anzac day game, and Dreamtime at the ‘G (once more this Saturday), as well as the Country game. He went to Sydney and became the first coach of GWS, evangelising the game. He remains ever present, and back at Essendon, where he belongs.

Curious to think there were some who resisted this recognition. There are few people in the history of the game who have had such a profound influence – the only rival to him I can think of is Ron Barassi. Yet there were some, like Tim Lane ( a noted pretentious tosser), who were up at arms at the thought of it. I can only think it’s because for all his geniality he was a tough footballer and occasionally an outspoken commentator.

But guess what – who gives a fuck what the inconsequential think? It may be overdue, but now, finally, Sheeds is recognised for his unequalled contribution to the great game. Well done Sheeds, no greater legend than you.

The play-offs

Like millions all over the planet I’ve been following the NBA finals series with rapt attention. By and large it’s been a pretty good series to watch with some great contents and fantastic moments – come on down LBJ.

There are a lot of NBA fans in Oz, but greater interest than ever this year with the emergence and star power of Simmons. He’s going to be big name for a lot of years, one of the greats potentially, especially if he can get his jump shot going – and I’m sure he will. He’s earned a lot of comparisons with Magic Johnson. Totally different personalities, but otherwise a lot of similarities – both of a size they could play as a permanent forward, both with great athleticism, both great passers of the ball with a touch of wizardry, both smart with the ball in hand, and both superior defenders. Long way to go, but a great start for Simmons.

Unfortunately for his Aussie fans he’s out of it now, as are the Phillies. That came as a bit of a surprise. Simmons more or less bombed against the Celtics, who ended up winning the series 4-1.

They’re my two favourite teams – the Celtics and the Sixers, but I probably lean towards the Celtics. With Hayward out and Irving more recently I didn’t expect them to beat the Sixers so convincingly. What they have is a great coach though in Brad Stevens. He put a team on the floor and a game plan that blunted the Sixers strengths, on top of which players like Terry Rozier really stepped up. Throw in Tatum (another star in the making), and Horford making some big plays and they did it easy.

With Hayward and Irving back next year they’ll be really formidable and just about favourites going in. This year they have to get by the Cavs first.

The Cavs are pretty much a one man team – but what a man! LeBron James has been the best player in the league for many years, but some of his performances in the play-off have been out of this world. He has single-handedly carried a pretty ordinary team into the semis, and pulled off some unbelievable clutch baskets to win games that looked lost.

The Cavs are taking on the Celtics and trail 0-1. A lot are touting the Cavs, but even with LBJ I reckon the Celtics will progress. These play-offs, minus key players, has really steeled them. They’ve got better as they’ve gone along and have a roster in which someone like Brown or Morris or Smart, or even Baynes, will step-up to get the job done. They’re playing with belief, and a lot of that is down to Brad Stevens, their coach.

One of the questions arising out of the series has been suggestions that perhaps LeBron is now ahead of Jordan as the GOAT. I love LBJ, both as a player and as an individual. He is immense. I grew up watching Jordan though, when the league was a bit tougher I think, and he was next level then and has been ever since. No-one has ever been more athletic than Jordan, no-one more competitive – though James rivals him. He’s one of the greatest offensive players ever, if not the greatest, and he was fantastic on the defensive end to. Great as LBJ is, I’m pretty comfortable believing Jordan is still GOAT.

I tipped Houston to win the whole thing before the play-offs begun, but I reckon the Warriors might get them first. I watched Steph Curry practice his 3 point shooting the other day and I reckon 15-20 shots in a row went swoosh. He’s not great defensively, but he’s as big an offensive threat in the league. He’s now back from an injury lay-off just in time to take on the Rockets. Add in Kevin Durant and they’re scary.

Against them is James Harden, scary in himself, but I wonder if the team has the hard-edged play-off experience to get past the Warriors. Harden fired big time in game one, at home, and they still lost.

I’m tipping a Warriors-Celtics final, and can’t see the Warriors losing that. Next year though…

Outside the outer

Tomorrow I get to sleep in for Anzac Day. I’ll have a quiet morning doing nothing in particular, unless I manage to squeeze in some writing. Come the afternoon I’ll be eager to sit down in front of the TV to watch the big game from the MCG.

There’ll be near 100,000 people there, and millions others watching. The build-up will be enormous, the anticipation huge. It feels momentous, like one of those rare occasions when you join with others in common expectation of something out of the ordinary. I know it’s just a footy match, and sometimes it’s been a disappointing contest, but often it has been epic.

I’ll brook no interruption tomorrow. I might have a mate join me, but all my focus will be on the game. I bought a meat pie today, and tomorrow will cook it up with some chips and enjoy it as the game begins as if I was at the ground. Come the evening I’ll be happy or sad but nothing in-between. And come Thursday I’ll be back at work.

I’m heading out for a glass of wine tonight. One of the bonuses of having a midweek day off is that you get a midweek night out if you want it. The mood will be lighter, people more relaxed.

Some I know are heading out tomorrow, going for a drive down the beach or into the bush, or catching up with family. I’m happy with my plans, but I recognise the subtle pang I feel when people mention this. I’ve always shrugged it off before. It’s a fact of life. Today I faced it square.

It is a fact of life, but personally I feel sad that the family occasions – birthdays, mother’s day, Easter, random barbecues and family meals – are no longer available to me. What I miss is that sense of belonging. Of being a part of something. It was nice to go there and feel utterly comfortable and free to be myself; to know I was loved, and at the very least always had a feed whenever I wanted it.

I don’t have that now, but there’s no good reason why I can’t have it again. That’s the plan. In the meantime, let’s hope the Dons do over the Pies tomorrow.

More to it than winning

For one reason or another it’s been a while since I’ve been interested in the Olympics. I became jaded by the almost perpetual reports of corruption and incompetence, each little bit taking the event further away from the purity of its founding principle. With that it became more corporate with every incarnation, which was reflected in the coverage – always heavy on advertising and promotion of sponsors, and in recent years, ridiculously and annoyingly partisan. (Seriously, I reckon most Aussies would much prefer an impartial coverage to the barracking so often provided as commentary).

In theory if I was over the Olympic games, then it’s poor relation the Commonwealth games didn’t factor at all. At least the Olympics could boast the very cream of the crop – what could the Commonwealth games offer?

It’s for that reason I wasn’t excited about the Gold Coast games just ended. It was poorly promoted to start with, and there was no sense of anticipation. I hoped we – Oz – went well, but in the first few nights I preferred to watch my own shows than switch to the coverage. Then something changed.

Australia traditionally does well in swimming, even at Olympic level, and some of that hype transmitted to me. I switched over a day or two in to watch the exploits of our Aussie swimmers, hoping to see them topple the Brits.

The swimming was great, but I kept watching when the second week began and other sports took over. A lot of it was familiar. Though there were exceptions, much of the commentary and coverage was mediocre. The Aussies were blitzing in general. We’ve had our ups and downs in recent years, but throughout my years of watching international sport it’s been pretty standard for Australia to do well. It’s nice, it’s a bonus, but it’s normal pretty much. It was nice this time, but what really got me was something different.

The whole ball tampering crisis in South Africa has reframed the whole notion of Australian sport. We always had an Australian way, but the bottom line is that we expected to win and would exert our every fibre to achieve that. It can be pure, but in recent times it’s taken on an unsavoury edge. All of us feel that, and all of us want something different. Winning isn’t everything.

That’s what captured me. There were many moments in these games that demonstrated exemplary sportsmanship. Across the board there appeared great respect between competitors, and between spectators and competitors. Overall it appeared a very friendly games. Everyone wanted to win, and the Aussie crowds were rowdy in their support for local athletes, but contest over there was appreciation for the effort.

More than many games I feel as if the stories of the competitors and competition were just as important as the results. Perhaps it is the nature of the Commonwealth games that the sense of community comes to the fore. There were world champions competing, and world class competitors sprinkled through the sports, but reality is that many who won medals wouldn’t have made an Olympic final. This is a second tier competition at best, but being that it emphasises the spirit of doing your best and having a go. It’s nice to win, but to be a part of this, to be in fellowship with fellow athletes and to enjoy the experience of a lifetime trying your best – well, that’s the true essence of it.

That was emphasised by the integration of disabled competitors into the program. This was a great success, and universally heartwarming. None of these competitors are objectively the greatest, but what they exemplify is hope and effort and belief. They define themselves by their determination to overcome the variety of physical handicaps they are faced with. Watching them you realise that there’s much more than coming first. The attempt to surpass your limits – to be better – is the ultimate challenge.

I know, that sounds unusually wet for me. I love competing. I love winning. I hate being second. It’s perspective though, too. Winning is a thrill. It’s an irreplaceable moment in time. The broader experience lasts a lifetime I reckon.

There’s no better example of this than Kurt Fearnley, the much loved, universally admired disabled athlete. He’s been a warrior since the Sydney Olympics in 2000, a fierce competitor and a wonderful representative of Australia. He is a man who has overcome the handicap he was born with to become something much more than a man with a disability.

He won his last ever event yesterday, the wheelchair marathon. He spoke after of how when you wear the colours of Australia you have to be fierce, but competition done, to err on the side of kindness.

That, to me, should be the Australian sporting mantra going forward – fierce, but kind. We used to be that way naturally, but maybe the pendulum is now returning to that. It’s a philosophy that puts these games into perspective, and competition in general.

For me there are no better role models in Australian sport than Kurt Fearnley and Mick Fanning, legends both.

The fallout

Harrowing scenes the other day when the disgraced Australian cricketers returned home. All three of them took it hard, with Steve Smith breaking down in his press conference. It was hard to watch, and impossible not to be sympathetic.

In the wake of that the attitude to him, and to a lesser degree the others, has softened, to the point that some now claim that the whole thing has been blown up out of all proportion and the penalties are much too harsh.

The penalties – basically 12 months for Smith and Warner, 9 months for Bancroft – are pretty much in line with my expectations. They’re banned from all cricket outside of grade cricket in that period, while I might have allowed them to play Sheffield Shield. The penalties aren’t as harsh as they seem simply because the international cricket season pretty well ends today for the Australians. Effectively they miss a short tour playing Pakistan, and next summer against India.

I was just as affected as most people by the remorse shown, but it doesn’t soften my attitude or change the basic facts. As much as anything a harsh penalty is needed to demonstrate the seriousness of the offence, and as a circuit breaker from which a change in culture and behaviour may now flow. This is a fork in the road.

It’s not necessarily the end of it – appeals and further hearings are possible – but now is the time for us to get around these individuals. They have transgressed, but they have also recognised their wrongdoing and shown remorse. Sport is all about second chances.

Of the three the most I’m most concerned about is David Warner. He appears to be the architect of the crime and has borne the brunt of the recrimination. He’s not well loved around the world because of some of his antics, many of which I’ve found hard to stomach also. He assumed role, misguided as it was, for the team, to be the attack dog, and bear the brunt of the conflict that arose from it.

That backfired to some extent in this tour of South Africa when it became personal off the field. I still scratch my head that Warner was the more heavily penalised in the confrontation with de Kock. In my eyes, as it is with everyone I’ve spoken to, de Kock’s comments and behaviour was reprehensible. The offence was doubled down when in the next test match half the South Africa crowd turned up in Sonny Bill Williams masks, up to and including South African cricket officials. That was an utter disgrace and insult not just to Warner, but more particularly his wife. That too was pretty much swept under the carpet, but it’s no surprise that Warner came into the third test seething with anger.

The whole situation was further compounded when Rabada, banned for two matches for repeat offences, had his suspension overturned on appeal. At the very least Smith was incensed by this, and I presume most of the team was. It was a poor call by the ICC, further proving how inept they are, and effectively undermining their own process. I suspect it added to a siege mentality among the Australians – aggrieved, besieged by the crowd, let down by due process, promoting an us against them mentality and an environment in which extreme choices might seem reasonable. The rest is history.

The ICC, as always, have a lot to answer for, but so too does Cricket Australia. They allowed for this situation to degenerate over a long period. Occasionally they would mutter something censorious, but did little about it. Part of the problem was the wrong people in the wrong jobs. By all accounts Lehmann is a ripper bloke, but I’ve heard stories that prove he was the wrong person to be national coach. He has since resigned. On top of that Steve Smith should not have been made captain. This offence proves that he had neither the strength or authority to prevent wrong being done, but the problem started at his appointment. He’s a great batsman and probably a nice guy, but that doesn’t make for a leader. CA has to clean up the method by which they select leaders. A Border, a Taylor, a Waugh or a Ponting would never have allowed for this to happen.

For now we have a re-configured Australian team, a new captain, and soon to have a new coach. All power to them.