Category Archives: Sports

A love of second place

Proudly tell an American that you once came second in a three-legged race, and he will tell you that he once won an egg-and-spoon competition. Show off your collection of New Order rarities, and she’ll open a cupboard and reveal recordings that even Peter Hook didn’t know existed. And woe betide he who claims to be able to drink a pint of water in 3.1 seconds, as he’ll suddenly find himself battling off against an American who claims he can do it in half the time. Through a straw.

Yes, Americans are competitive – something I have learned extensively through my marriage to The Special One. To be fair, she would never claim that she is competitive – just that she’s better than me at everything. Given that any reductive argument between two parents (and whether it’s about world poverty, or who peels the carrots) always boils down eventually to the comment “When you’ve gone through childbirth, then you can talk to me about that”, I’ve learned to treasure the runners up spot and make it my own.

The fact is that America and Americans always do seem to take things one step further than the Brits. We grow nice looking aubergines that can do a perfectly serviceable job in moussaka or ratatouille; Americans grow eggplants that can feed a family of four for a month. Britain’s summer lasts between the third Tuesday in July until the following Monday; American winters and summers run so long that they’d be more accurately known as dynasties rather than seasons. And so on.

All that is fine, and I’m very proud of my adopted country for its consistent pattern of oneupmanship.

That said, all bets are off when it comes to the World Cup.

A little back story first. As long time readers will know, I was born in England but feel a greater affinity with the Welsh, having been brought up in North Wales. Maybe it was a reaction against the arcane rule that still allows an Englishman to shoot a Welshman with a bow and arrow in my hometown Chester (as long as it’s after midnight, obviously)? But whatever the case, whenever Wales are in the same competition as England, I’m firmly in the Anyone But England camp.

With the World Cup, there’s frankly more chance of me taking a starring role in Zoolander 2 than Wales qualifying. Given that I have as much need to waste six weeks of my life as the next man, the lack of a Welsh presence means that my allegiance then has to switch to Wayne Rooney and his dubious crew of adulterous inbreds.

Which brings me to Saturday, and the International Kickball Chanmpionships game between the country that I rarely admit to being born in, and the country that I still have trouble believing that I live in. So my allegiances are torn, right?

Wrong. The last three days have witnessed me daydreaming at length about dipping Rooney volleys from 25 yards, elaborate back heels into the net through the legs of 10 US outfielders, and a sudden discovery of Cruyff’s Total Football ethic by Emile Heskey. To be frank, I may be in the lion’s den, but nothing would make me happier than a crushing Three Lions victory, and a demonstration that second place isn’t that bad after all.

Saturday’s game aside, it’s nice to have a second team to support in the World Cup. Given that a UN mandate requires the elimination of the England team at the quarter finals stage on penalties, it’s always good to have a reason to follow a team that can occasionally spring a surprise.

Let’s just hope it’s not on Saturday, eh?

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

I love America. No, that’s really not a day-late April Fool’s joke, for the doubting thomases amongst you. This summer will mark the 16th anniversary of me first coming to the States, and from that first trip to the present day, I’ve had an endless fascination with all things American. Marrying one of them may seem like an excessive demonstration of that; playing a part in creating a whole new one, even more so. But each to their own, huh?

However, there are two things that I fear I will never come to terms with – the obsession with college sports, and tabloid newspapers.

It’s fitting that I should mention the American obsession with college sports ahead of a weekend in which a crew from my old university will row four or so miles up a British river against a crew from another university 65 miles away, with millions of people watching on television. The irony is not lost on me, fear not. But the frenzy that accompanies March Madness (a basketball competition between various US universities, I believe) or the start of the college football season makes the Boat Race look like the non-event it almost certainly is.

Similarly, for a man who hails from a country boasting The Sun, The Mirror and the Daily Mail, some might say that it would be hard for a Brit to complain about the quality of the American tabloid. But I’ve been in The Sun’s newsroom, and for every “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”, there’s a hard-hitting news story that brings about true change. The same cannot be said about, say, the National Enquirer.

Anyway, every so often, these two worlds collide, as they did this week with this stunning frontpage headline from the New York Daily News.

Now, my journalist days are long behind me, but last time I looked, “New Local College Basketball Coach Has Hot Wife” is not listed in the ‘no brainer’ section of the Dummies Guide To Front Page News. Nor does it suggest that the “stunning starlet” ((c) New York Daily News) need to be still taking up valuable column inches three days later. I’ve heard of slow news days, but come on people…

By the way, the coach himself is set to earn $9 million over the course of his six month contract. For teaching college kids. I’m clearly in the wrong business. And Mary Ann Jarou knows a good thing when she sees it.

Never mind the show, let’s watch the adverts

It’s the biggest day of America’s televisual year tomorrow – a day so big that retailers such as Best Buy are ramping up their marketing to capture the trade of all those people tempted to upgrade their televisions in preparation. Food is being readied, beer being bought, and corner shopsbodegas are running out of ice across the country. And all because millions of people want to watch a few advertscommercials.

Unfortunately the most eagerly anticipated ads of the year are interspersed with short breaks featuring the Superbowl,  the most overhyped sports game of the year. Apart from this year, of course, where the match-up between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers has all the allure of a game between Derby County and Fulham on a wet Monday night in November.

Never mind, there’s still the ads to look forward to. The Superbowl offers one of the few opportunities left for advertisers to reach a mass audience in one go, with last year’s clash between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots attracting an audience of around 97 million. As a result, brands are falling over themselves to get into the breaks, with each attempting to outdo each other with big budgets, Hollywood production values, and a healthy dose of humour thrown in for good measure.

To be fair, many of them are pretty amusing or impressive. Certainly impressive enough to get featured in shows such as The Greatest Superbowl Commercials Ever, at least. There’s no getting around the fact that, during the live broadcast of the ads, you have to watch some overpaid men try to move a ball ten yards forward, but you can’t have everything.

The strange thing is that the UK doesn’t have an equivalent ad-fest, despite the attempts of broadcasters to create one. Nobody puts a particularly special effort into their FA Cup Final ads, for instance, or fight amongst each other to get into the Christmas special of Heartbeat. Personally I’d like to see the World Darts Championship final declared the focus of UK marketing efforts, if for no other reason than it will take your mind off how big Raymond van Barneveld’s gut is these days.

Incidentally, the Superbowl broadcaster NBC today announced that it is currently in talks to sell the last two of the 67 spots for the game, the rest of which have already been sold for between $2. 4 million and $3 million per 30-second slot. And that’s before the advertisers have even thought about the cost of creating the commercial itself.

Economic crisis? What economic crisis?

Playing ball

Something strange has happened to me over the last six months. Something I always swore would never happen to me. Something vaguely shameful for a thoroughbred Brit whose very masculinity is defined by an overwhelming desire to eat pie, chips and gravy before watching a footballsoccer match.

Reader, I like baseball.

I have no idea how this happened. As far as I was concerned, the only game with a bat and a ball that was worth its salt was cricket. You know, the game that takes five days and generally ends in a draw. That doesn’t mean there’s no excitement in cricket though. As a kid, I once broke a school mate’s nose playing cricket, accidentally swinging my bat backwards into his honk in flamboyant search of a boundary as he stood too close as wicketkeepercatcher. I managed to turn around in time to see his nose explode with the explosive power of a November 5July 4 firework. Paul Connell, if you’re reading, I’m truly sorry.

Our closest thing to baseball was rounders. With a shorter bat, and generally a tennis ball instead of a hard ball, rounders is to baseball what Joey from Friends is to Laurence Olivier. The only real memory I have of the game is the fact that, on seeing a player hit the ball far enough to allow them to get around all bases, it seemed to be compulsory for all participants to chant “rounder, rounder, rounder, rounder.” Trust me, there’s no greater sound in the world.

I always thought that baseball was a ridiculous waste of time, with far too many games every season to be taken seriously. And to be fair, rarely can so many out of shape men been employed as professional sportsmen. My dog can run faster than most baseball players, and she’s been dead for ten years.

But strangely baseball got its claws into me. Maybe it’s the endless statistics, or maybe it’s the fact that the backpages of the New York tabloids constantly splash on baseball stories. But however it happened, I’m hooked and there seems to be no way back.

I’ve only ever been to one baseball game, at the very start of this season with Brit Out Of Water Sr and The Eldest. That titanic struggle was between one of the most famous names in international team sport, and the side that has finished last in its division for nine of the last ten years. And was the worst team in the whole of baseball last year.

Needless to say, the Tampa Bay Rays beat the New York Yankees 6-3 that day, went from strength to strength during the season, and are currently playing the first game of the “World” Series. If you need your rubbish side to become useful, my father, stepson and I are all available at the start of next season to attend a game and support the opposing side.

I hate to admit it, but I’m actually going to miss baseball for the next six months. I’ll be savouring the World Series for all I’m worth, and hoping that the Rays come through to win over the next seven games.

If it comes down to the last game next Thursday, and a Ray hits a winning home run in the bottom of the 9th inning, I want to hear the entire crowd on their feet shouting a lusty chant of “rounder, rounder, rounder, rounder,” OK?

The love of the game

If I was still living in the UK, I’d be squashed up in the back of a cab right now with The Best Man, The Beancounter and Sickly Child on the way to Luton to catch a flight to Moscow. A flight containing two hundred already drunk slightly overweight men gently sweating nicotine and harassing flight attendants. On arrival, I’d be questioned at length about my right to be in the country before being herded onto a poky Russian bus. I’d then be forced into a segregated compound for hours on end, denied the right to drink even a watery beer, and have to spend an age queuing for the right to relieve myself in a excrement smeared portaloo. After around three hours of bowel-clenchingly unbearable tension, I’d be manhandled back onto a bus, back to the airport, and onto a plane with two hundred practically feral men. Part way through the four hour flight, I’d celebrate my 36th hour without sleep by removing the beer belly of a slobbering electrician from Billericay from my arm rest. Once back at Luton, I’d have to endure a three hour journey across London in rush hour traffic just for the right to fall back into my bed.

Oh, and I’d have paid £750 for the whole privilege.

Strangely, I’d pay twice that much to be in the back of that cab now.

Football – it’s a funny old game.

They think it’s all over

It’s not every day that I start to get a hangover at about 4pm, but then I guess it’s not every day that Manchester United win the Premiership. That’s the English ‘soccer’ league, for the uninitiated. In retrospect, starting to drink beer at 10am on a Sunday was never going to be one of my best-laid plans. But having already bitten my nails down to stubs in the run-up to the deciding game, I had to find something to do with my hands. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it…

Of course, while soccer is admittedly undergoing a young person/Beckham-induced boom, mainstream America’s indifference towards the beautiful game is well documented. My office is actually packed with football fans, but – like Britain’s reaction to baseball, American football and (to a lesser extent) ice hockey and basketball – ‘proper football’ is about as interesting as rat droppings for most people.

As such, it can be difficult to find anywhere to view matches where the big game atmosphere constitutes anything more than The Special One asking me to pick my shoes up off the floor. But with United (or ManYoo, as they’re generally called by the limited number of Americans who have heard of them) just needing a win to clinch their tenth title in sixteen years, I ploughed the depths of Google to find a bar in Brooklyn that would be showing the big clash.

Seeing the closed doors on my arrival at Floyd NY didn’t bode well, but it turns out that they were just trying to keep the sun off the giant screen showing the game within. And despite being the official home of the New York Tottenham Hotspur’s Supporters Club, the place was packed full of United fans eager to see Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo (and eight more men that no normal American has ever heard of) attempt to win the title for the second year running.

Now here’s the strange thing. The majority of the people in the bar were probably British – or at least not American. Put them in a bar in the UK, and they’d almost certainly be screaming at the television every time a United pass went astray, or swearing with abandon at each missed opportunity. But unless you’re in one of the huge football pubs (such as Nevada Smiths or the Red Lion, if you’re in New York), football watching seems to be a much more cultured and respectful pursuit – and that rubs off on even the British hardcore. So much so that when I laughingly mentioned to a couple of bystanders that the Chelsea captain John Terry would probably miss the Champions League final with a dislocated elbow, they gave me a look that suggested they suspected me of surreptitiously relieving myself in their pints of beer.

Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of joyful roaring as each of United’s two winning goals went in, and collective relief when the final whistle went to confirm them as champions. But whenever you have to rely on Spurs fans to provide the only chanting at a game, you know something’s gone horribly wrong.

Now with the Premiership finally in the bag, the only question is where to watch the Champions League final.

“From behind the sofa with my hands partially over my eyes” is my current thinking.

Open brackets

I’ve been a footballsoccer fan for as long as I can remember. I’ve still got a picture of me resplendent in my first ever Manchester United kit, proudly sitting on Brit Out Of Water Senior’s lap one Christmas. And I was even humiliated at my wedding (sorry, who am I kidding, I mean at The Special One’s wedding) with a blown-up photograph of a bobble-hatted me aged six, standing infront of United’s ground. Rarely can dimples have looked more prominent.

On one of my first trips to Old Trafford, I can vividly recall sitting on a coachbus taking us to Manchester, and desperately trying to make sense of the ‘league ladders’ that had fallen out of my brand new copy of the bible (or Shoot! football magazine, as I believe it was actually known).

Essentially the Shoot! League Ladder was a piece of cardboard with a tiny piece of card on it for every club in the country. Each one was pushed out of the cardboard frame until you had 92 thumb-sized tabs that could be pushed into the perforated card to reflect where each club was in the league at that point in the season. Given that this was the 1980s, I never had to move Manchester United’s piece of card much above position 8, although I did take a relatively inexplicable interest in seeing the rise and fall of “Harry McNally’s Blue & White Army”. Or Chester, as most pundits seem to insist on calling them.

Statistics have always been at the heart of being a sports fan. Whether it’s the percentage of first serves achieved by Andy Murray or Roger Federer, or the lap times of a 10,000 metremeter runner, being a proper sports fan is something that requires a mind for numbers. You also need an extraordinary ability to retain the facts that Rain Man would struggle to remember. I only remember the date of Brit Out Of Water Senior’s wedding to The Wicked Stepmother because it coincided with Ryan Giggs’ first goal for Manchester United, in a 1-0 triumph over our light blue City rivals.

Of course, in America, sports stats are just as important. But to say that I know nothing would be to do a disservice to those who know nothing. I’d have a better chance of guessing the number of grains of rice in the world than I would have of telling you how many three pointers Nate Robinson has scored in the last three seasons.

Yesterday I was forcedpersuaded into taking part in my office’s NCAA brackets competition. I assume that NCAA stands for No Clue About Anything as that pretty sums up my knowledge of this sports prediction tradition. Essentially there appear to be about 32 teams (which I assume to be college teams, given that UCLA and Stanford were among them), and you have to choose who will beat who, all the way through to the eventual final. I guess that the person who gets most right wins the prize.

Suffice to say that it was only about half way through filling in the form that I realised that this was a basketball competition. I haven’t even heard of some of the places involved, let alone know whether they’re a good team or whether they’re capable of beating another team I’ve never heard of. I ended up with Tennessee winning, just because The Special One would never forgive me if I didn’t. It’s akin to picking Scunthorpe United to win the FA Cup because you like the colour of their kit.

Apparently they call it ‘March Madness’. The only madness is the fact that I’ve made another $20 donation to a fellow colleague’s pocket.

Lost in translation

On a day like today, when the Super Bowl is the predominant topic of conversation at the watercoolers of American offices, I may as well walk around the city with a giant pink neon sign above my head that reads “I’m British, please ignore me”.

It’s not that I don’t understand what, erm, wide receivers and tight ends are. It’s just that nobody believes that I know what they are – or indeed, that I care. To be fair, they may well have a point on that second issue, but that doesn’t mean I’m not prepared to give it my best shot in the interests of community spirit.

Twice today I saw my fellow man’s excitement at the prospect of discussing “the greatest New York sporting triumph of the last twenty years” vanish into thin air when they suddenly realised that I’m not a natural-born fan of that game with the funny shaped balls.

Entering the office this morning, a few guys stood around reliving the final few moments of last night’s game. Back home, I would have quite happily barged my way into the conversation with talk of how Adebayor should have buried that last minute chance, or how Robinson had had a complete shocker with that cross from Mellberg. Here in New York, I simply received a sympathetic look that was almost certainly intended to convey something along the lines of “we’d love to talk to you about this historic sporting moment, but you were probably watching repeats of Fawlty Towers on BBC America while eating cucumber sandwiches”.

Later on in the day, I made my way downstairs in the liftelevator to grab a sandwich. The one man already in the elevator gave me a big smile, and said “What about those Giants, man?!” I was pretty sure my response was “Incredible, huh? Manning’s ability to avoid the Patriots blitz before passing to Tyree was a pivotal moment that changed the course of the game.” From his reaction to my British accent, I can only assume that I actually said “Who are the Giants?”.

Thankfully I’ve always been a fan of awkward silences.

Enough of this talk of gridiron though. If you want to talk to me about valiant against-the-odds sporting victories with an oval ball, talk to me about Wales defeating England in rugby’s Six Nations on Saturday.

Sadly, I’m not sure which one Americans are less likely to have heard of – rugby or Wales.

Champions

So the New York Giants are the Super Bowl champions…pretty incredible game, and not just because of the number of burgers I managed to stuff down my neck.

Watching the TV broadcast, a few things sprang to mind:

1. How can one sports game last four hours? That’s not a sport, that’s some kind of endurance hell.

2. Speaking after the game, one New York Giants player claimed that he was just happy to win the world championship. Erm, anybody want to let me know how many other countries were allowed to compete in the NFL this season?

3. Even though I started watching the game wanting the New England Patriots to complete an unbeaten season, I couldn’t help but be caught up in the excitement of the New York Giants coming back to win the game in the final minute. Maybe I’m actually a lucky omen for New York sports teams, given how awful they’ve been over the last few years?

4. Apparently Mayor Bloomberg has agreed that there will be a ticker tape parade in New York this week, to celebrate the Giants victory. Given that the Giants (and the Jets) play in New Jersey, it’s like Manchester United winning the FA Cup, and then having an open-top bus parade in Birmingham.

5. The winning catch was made by Plaxico Burress, who had last week confounded pundits by predicting a 23-17 victory for the Giants. I so wish I could have been a fly-on-the-wall when Mr & Mrs Burress were thinking about a name for their soon-to-be born son.

Mr Burress: I’m thinking that maybe we should call him Philip after my dad.
Mrs Burress: I prefer Thomas, after my great grandfather who was such an inspiration to me when I was young.
Mr B: I just don’t like the name Thomas? What about Mike?
Mrs B: Mike? I hate that name. What about Billy?
Mr B: Over my dead body
Mrs B: OK, we’re getting nowhere here. Look, this is going to seem a little bit out of leftfield, but what about Plaxico?
Mr B: Perfect!

The car horns are blasting out left, right and centre in Brooklyn right now. With any luck, there might even be smiling faces on the subway tomorrow morning.

This is New York though, so I wouldn’t count on it.