Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

South Africa and the World Cup

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

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I just got back from one of the trips of a lifetime.

Firstly, there’s the World Cup. It’s the biggest sporting event on earth (sorry, Olympics!).

Then you’ve got the first World Cup in Africa, a football-crazy continent, an occasion that was long overdue.

And lastly, there’s South Africa. What a great country and what great hosts for the 2010 World Cup.

It was a trip that had to be taken, and I’m unbelievably happy to say I was there.

We arrived in Johannesburg on June 12 and spent 16 days in and around that part of the country, attending 6 games in the tournament: group stage matches USA v England in Rustenburg, USA v Slovenia and Brazil v Cote d’Ivoire in Joburg, and USA v Algeria in Pretoria, and first knockout stage matches USA v Ghana in Rustenburg and England v Germany in Bloemfontein.

In between games, we spent some time with our good friends Nigel & Celeste and Aditya, whom we have to thank profusely for giving us places to stay in the Joburg suburbs of Krugersdorp and Sandton, respectively.

We traveled to Kruger Park for three days, during which we saw four of the “big 5″ game animals (no leopards!) as well as a ton of other wildlife. We stayed in a lodge with a view of the Crocodile River just outside of the park. I have to thank Celeste and her relatives Dalene and Louis for showing us around Kruger. I’ll post a separate photo gallery from that part of the trip at some point.

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Back in Joburg, we visited the black township of Soweto twice – once on a tour with a stop at the Hector Pieterson museum, which commemorates the beginning of popular uprisings against apartheid, and a second time to dine at the famous Wandie’s Place shebeen (a local bar/restaurant). We drove through the the Lion and Rhino Conservation Park in the northern suburbs of town. In Pretoria, we stopped by the Voortrekkers monument, the Union Buildings and Church Square. And, thanks to Nigel, we spent a night at Sun City, the world-famous resort nestled in the hills near Rustenburg.

It was a lot of travel. And much of it required getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road. But it was well worth it. South Africa did a superb job organizing this tournament. People were welcoming, security was spot on, the facilities were in great shape… everything was just well done. My only complaint was the highway out of Rustenburg! (and the park & ride lots there!)

South Africa, aside from being a beautiful country, has some great cuisine as well. From simple steaks to various types of game meat to seafood from neighboring Mozambique, we ate delicious food at reasonable prices almost everywhere we went. The local wine and beer were perfect for washing all that great food down. I gained 3 kilos.

And then there was the football… some stellar moments.  The United States’ amazing comeback from 2-0 down versus Slovenia comes to mind, including the US goal that would have made it 3-2 (instead of the final result of 2-2) had the referee not been an idiot. Then there were the rapturous scenes when the USA scored in the last seconds of the game against Algeria, therefore winning their group and setting up an ill-fated date with Ghana in the round of 16. The USA v Ghana match was entertaining, despite the outcome and the USA’s exit from the tournament, as we were in a corporate box next door to Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, Katie Couric and Wolf Blitzer. Many pictures were taken. And then there was England’s goal-that-wasn’t-counted against Germany, although the Germans looked good value to win the match anyway.

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Soccer City stadium

The atmosphere around the stadiums before, during and after matches was also something to behold. The Brazilians win for most animated fans, both at the stadiums and beforehand at places like Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. The Americans, said by FIFA to have bought more tickets than people from any other country (South Africa aside), were also lively and came dressed up for the occasion (who says we don’t love soccer!?). England fans sing like no one else. It was a carnival all around, every where we went. And South African vuvuzelas, while a noisy annoyance when watching these games on TV, were actually not hard to get used to inside the stadiums.

I could go on for ages. I’ve probably use more superlatives in this post than any normal grammar or style guidelines might dictate. But it was really that fun. My only regret is not making it down to Cape Town or Durban, which I hear are lovely places.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that and let the photos do the talking… when I get around to posting them…

FA Cup Final 2010

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

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Despite going out of the Champions League a little earlier than hoped, Chelsea FC had a very successful season, finishing top of the English Premier League for the first time in 4 years. It was great to celebrate winning the league, which was sealed on the final day of the season with a resounding 8-0 thrashing of Wigan, but as much fun as was had, it was not the same celebrating it in Moscow as it would have been in London.

After winning the league, Chelsea still had to play in the FA Cup final, the culmination of a strong run in the world’s oldest football competition. It was the perfect excuse for a weekend in London.

For those who haven’t been, a day out at Wembley stadium is a treat. Sure, it’s quite a crush getting to and from the place by public transport (and driving in is even more difficult) but we had the proper strategy this year by heading there early and meeting up with some friends for a good Chinese lunch at a place across the street.

The game was somewhat lackluster but the result what it should have been – Chelsea won 1-0, thus securing its 3rd trophy of the season (including the Community Shield last August) and capping the most successful season in the club’s history.

Our celebrations lasted late into the night, making it somewhat difficult to get up on the Sunday. But rise and shine we did, as there was a victory parade through the streets of Fulham. This was my first time attending such a parade and I enjoyed the whole thing – the team riding by in open-top busses, the fans with their kids out in the streets, the celebrations in Eel Brooke Common, and the unrestricted throwing of many kilos of celery (Chelsea fans will understand that last part).

Here’s hoping for an even more successful season next year when the Champions League final, which rotates around Europe, comes home to Wembley. I hope we’ll be there.

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What’s the Matter, London?

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

Our annual trip to Ibiza came in September this year, but instead of the usual flight path through either Barcelona or Madrid, we decided to stop off in London on the way. It was, after all, the weekend of the Chelsea v Manchester United home match. Can’t miss a big game like that.

We arrievd on Saturday morning, checked into our hotel, and ran a couple of errands before I finally got around to taking a nap – long desired after having had little sleep the previous night in Moscow. In the evening, we met up with a couple of friends for a very nice French meal in Soho, after which I met up with another group at a bar in the Southbank area. From there, the group proceeded to board a boat which ferried us down the Thames to the O2 Arena complex, where we attended the opening of new London superclub Matter.

Matter is an interesting animal. Concrete minimalist design but lots of colored lights nevertheless giving it a shiny feel. The ceiling is extremely high, thus giving balconies on the 2nd and 3rd floors a view of the proceedings down below. The crowd was a bit random but the sound system was superb and this latter point probably tipped my view of the place into the favorable column.

Most importantly, the “club night” opening party (3rd in a series of opening nights) was headlined by DJ Carl Cox, who played a massive set and kept the crowd going all night.

I was, needless to say, a little slow getting up on Sunday but we made it to the football on time. Unfortunately, Chelsea could only manage a 1-1 draw with Man U at Stamford Bridge that day. I’d kind of expected a draw, to be honest, so I wasn’t too worried. In any case, that night, we were heading off to Ibiza!

Vienna Calling, Viva Espana, Vpered Rossiya!

Friday, June 27th, 2008

Russian Parade in Vienna 

As anyone in Europe knows, the European football championships were the biggest story of the past month. One of the biggest subplots of that story was the surprise success of the Russian national team. Under the tutelage of veteran Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, the young Russian team not only reached Hiddink's goal of making it out of the group stage of the tournament…they actually made it to the semifinal. And they did with style, dismantling tournament favorites Holland. So, when the opportunity arose to go see the June 26 semifinal match between Russian and Spain, I took it.

Together with a few colleagues, I boarded a morning flight to Vienna and an early morning flight back to Moscow the next day. Arriving in Vienna, we first went to the Volkstheater where a pavilion had been set up out front to distribute tickets in Russia's end of the stadium. After that, it was off towards St Stephan's Cathedral with a stop on the way at an Italian place for lunch. Along the way, we witnessed a Russian parade, a Spanish pep rally, and crossed paths with Spain's most legendary football supporter, Manolo, who stood with his drum and accompanying band, leading Spanish supporters in song.

The football match was somewhat disappointing, mainly because the Russian team that had swept aside Sweden and Holland in their previous two matches did not show up for duty. Russia lost 3-0, but the team and the nation can take pride in getting this far when no one expected they would.

Getting home was quite a trip. We went back to the center after the game and settled in for drinks at a couple of bars. When we made our way to the airport as it approached 4am, there were Russian football fans passed out all over the airport terminal floor! Nevertheless, everyone made it peacefully onto our 6:30 flight and upon arrival home I promptly dozed off for a nice long nap.

Photos and some short film clips from the trip are online now.

Champions League Final in Moscow

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Luzhniki Stadium 

There were a few minutes in the Champions League semi-final in London when it looked like Liverpool might be able to get back in the game against Chelsea. Irina and I turned to each other and began to discuss how we really didn't need for the team to make the final and how much work it would be dealing with everyone coming to town for the match. We weren't serious, of course… well, not too serious… and were more than elated when Chelsea went on to send Liverpool packing.

Fast forward 3 weeks and everything was in full swing. I had loads of work around that period and friends and family coming in from London, Johannesburg and Almaty. The first moment I had to breathe for 2 weeks was when the teams took the field, but that didn't last for long as Chelsea and Manchester United, contesting the first all-English European Cup final, gave their fans and neutrals one of the most gripping soccer matches I've  ever seen.

The game went into extra time tied 1-1, and despite some chances and then some tiring legs, neither side could break the deadlock. And thus, the match went to that horrible lottery system used to break ties in football — penalties. With an open goal begging as the goalkeeper jumped the wrong way, on the 5th and final regulation penalty kick, a small slip on rain-soaked grass kept Chelsea captain John Terry from sealing a victory.

As all will know by now, Manchester United emerged victorious from the subsequent 2 rounds of penalties. It took a good 2 weeks for the fog of defeat to lift from my exhausted brain. It was emotionally draining to sit through that match, but absolutely thrilling nonetheless.

Despite the match result and all the related work, it was a great week and a lot of fun having various friends and family in town for a time. When everyone took off in the days afterwards, everything seemed a bit too quiet. No trophies for Chelsea this year, and no more Chelsea football until August. At least we have the European championships coming up.

Photos of the UEFA-organized festivities on Red Square and from the match itself at Luzhniki Stadium have been posted on the site.

London, Brighton, and Onward to Moscow!

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

Brighton 

As soon as Chelsea triumphed over Fenerbahce in the quarter-finals of the European Champions League, I knew we had no choice but to go to London for the 2nd leg of the two-match semi-final against Liverpool on April 30. And then there was that big game against Manchester United in the domestic league the weekend before. And the following Thursday was the May Day holiday in Russia, and Friday also a day off, so no use in coming back right away.

That's how, out of nowhere, you end up planning a week's vacation in the UK! But this time, we had to do something a little different. We couldn't stay in London the whole week — not that much shopping to do and I planned to avoid work. So, I solicited ideas from friends and came up with all kinds of ideas for day trips in order to make rare forays outside of the city. In the end, only one such journey was accomplished — a trip down to the seaside town of Brighton on England's south coast.

Brighton is a quaint little town. It's got a pier and mini-amusement park that reminded me of trips to the seashore in the mid-Atlantic region of the US. Yes, I rode some of the rides, and we had a nice seafood lunch. But it turned out to be quite a chilly day, so much so that we ran to the shopping center upon arrival to buy a cheap extra layer of clothing (in my case, a t-shirt. Irina got a new sweater). After spending much of the day wandering aimlessly, we headed back to London. Photos of our short journey are already online.

Aside from Brighton, the highlights of this trip included Chelsea victories over both Man U and Liverpool. The latter meant our team was going, completely coincidentally, to Moscow for the European Cup final. We were excited, to say the least!

London, Rodchenko, Football and Watching Paint Dry

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Yet another of our regular trips to London to kick off this February. The occasion was the opening of an exhibit of works by Alexander Rodchenko, considered a major figure in the Soviet avant-garde and Russia’s most celebrated photographer. The opening event was attended by a few famous figures and the exhibit itself was well put together. I’ve since heard that attendance is quite good, so if you’re in London and have a free afternoon, do head over to the Hayward Gallery and take a look. More info here.

Aside from that, the trip entailed a bit of work, a fun evening of pub hopping on Friday night, and a bit of nightclubbing on Saturday evening. Earlier that day, I travelled along the Thames to the town of Northfleet, Kent in order to watch a soccer match between the mighty Ebbsfleet United and their opponents Bristol City.

Ebbsfleet is a team in the Blue Square Premier League, otherwise known as the Conference. This is professional football, but barely. It’s 4 levels below the Premier League in which Chelsea play. The Conference isn’t even part of the football league. But Ebbsfleet is at the center of an interesting experiment whereby the registered members of the website MyFootballClub.co.uk have each paid 35 pounds/year for the right to participate in running the team. I joined up last summer, just for fun, and thought it would be a good idea to check out this team into which I’ve invested. I must say that, while the football is on a different level than Chelsea’s, it’s still entertaining and the small town atmosphere of their stadium is quite refreshing. I hope to go back again soon.

The trip came to a close with the rather larger-stakes match of Chelsea v Liverpool on Sunday. It was possibly one of the most boring Chelsea matches I’ve seen… especially compared to Saturday’s game at Ebbsfleet!

Israel, Again!

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

The Holy CitySo, I got another chance to go to Israel this month and I decided to take it. This time, as with my November visit, football was at the center of things as the Channel One Cup was in progress. The cup is a tournament of 6 Russian, Ukrainian, Israeli and, this time, Serbian teams being held for the 3rd year. A bunch of my colleagues were in town too so it was a chance to see them out-of-context and also take in the sites over 5 days instead of 1.5 days as with the previous trip.

Something about Israel is especially attactive, at least, it is to me after these short visits. Yes, the security is tight. And Tel Aviv isn’t really much to see. But you can feel the history around you and the importance of it all.

Old Jaffa in daylight, old Jerusalem with a guide, and descent into the City of David excavations were among the touristy highlights of this trip. I also attended 3 football matches, had a raging Friday night out that extended well into Saturday morning, and attended a tournament-related party on Sunday headlined by a performance by Pink.

Pink is one of those artists that always seems to have a catchy tune on the radio but not one I’d count among my favorites. Nevertheless, I must note that I thoroughly enjoyed her show. She’s a great performer in terms of energy, onstage presence, and strength of voice. Two thumbs up.

On the way home, a colleague of mine with an unfortunate Egyptian stamp among the many in her passport got to watch airport security go through every piece of underwear and lip gloss in her suitcase. A reminder that Israel still lives in difficult times.

From Holy Land to Snowy Land

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

An extraordindary November weekend was followed by a massive change in temperature, location and surrounding. A last-minute call from a friend alerted me to some space on a charter flight to Tel Aviv for the big Israel v Russia football match on November 17. The game was one that could have sealed Russia’s progress to the finals of the 2008 European Championship next summer.

It was a whirlwind trip to say the least. I was in Israel for not quite a day and a half, arriving Friday evening and leaving on a red-eye to Moscow very early Sunday. In that time, I managed to take a walking tour of part of old Jaffa, eat dinner at a very nice restaurant with some fellow travelers, and meet up with another pair of traveling friends to commence a pub to nightclub crawl, ending at a place called Barzilay where Ame were DJing. Back to the hotel for a short nap and then over to old Jerusalem to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and pray at the Wailing Wall (would have knelt down in the Al Aqsa mosque to cover all my bases, but it was closed to non-Muslims on Saturday!).

Now, security in Israel is, very understandably, extremely tight but at this point in the story is where it turned into harassment in my mind. I’d been asked to show my passport and answer a bunch of questions when I stepped off the plane (OK, I could see how it might be suspicious that a black American guy is flying in on a charter with a bunch of Russians for a soccer match), and I got interrogated twice on my way out of the country. Plus, passing through the last security checkpoint at the airport takes at least 10 minutes per person. But what I saw in Jerusalem seemed to take it all a little too far.

I’d taken a minibus on my way back to Tel Aviv – fast, convenient and much cheaper than a taxi. I was on my own, didn’t quite care how I got back and I had my iPod to listen to, so no problems. I hopped onboard. Next thing I know, we get stopped by an unmarked police car and all 12 or so passengers were asked to get off the minibus and show I.D. They interrogated this poor pair of middle-aged Russian women for nearly a half hour (I believe Russian Israelis, perhaps without proper documents). Then a couple of the male passengers. We – and most of “us” looked like Arab Israelis or Palestinians, but definitely not Jewish - were made to stand around and wait for an hour or more. No one was armed or carrying contraband as far as I know, because the police guys didn’t even check! In the end, they took the minibus off somewhere. Luckily it was only about 15 minutes walk to the station, but I was not impressed.

But that wasn’t what got me down. It was the next stop – the football match. Russia played horribly. And they lost, 2-1, to a young Israeli side. Only England’s subsequent defeat by Croatia the following week helped Russia to make it into the finals next summer in Austria & Switzerland. Hmm… haven’t been to Switzerland.

Anyway, the minority shakedown and poor football result didn’t take the luster off of what was a wonderful trip. Too short, of course, but warm weather (highs of 25-27 degrees C) and friendly people everywhere I went. Great food as well. And being in the Old City of Jerusalem was an amazing experience which I must definitely repeat when I have more time. So much history on one little piece of land. Lots of great photos to be posted very soon.

So from 25 C it was back to Moscow and -5 C, then out to Chukotka and -15 C the next day. From the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to a the coast of bay on the northern Pacific Ocean. Quite a difference.

Halloween, London and the NFL

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Halloween is a big deal in Moscow. It’s not a traditional celebration in this part of the world, but it was adapted and absorbed rather quickly as Russia catapulted toward capitalism. Savvy nighclub owners took it as an opportunity to hold massive parties, and some of the best, craziest, most fun events I’ve seen anywhere have been here on Halloween (Club XIII’s parties are legend!)

In fact, as of now, it’s gotten so big that it’s not so much fun anymore. After a one-year break, I attended Club XIII’s party this year, held on the Friday before Halloween, and it was just O.K. Good music supplied by Ron Carrol and Jorge from Who Da Funk, but not the best crowd. I think that there are just so many Halloween events these days that it’s hard to hold a party that’s so in-demand that you get a great crowd and the same level of craziness of years past.

My celebration this year was also limited by the fact I had to catch a plane in the morning. It was time for the annual visa renewal trip (to a convenient Russian embassy anywhere… outside of Russia!). Back to London this time and another packed weekend with little/no sleep (reference Prince weekend below!).

We arrived just in time to see Chelsea FC dismantle Manchester City with a scoreline of 6-0. Fun match to attend, unless you’re a Man City fan I suppose. Comprehensive victory. Even hapless striker Andriy Shevchenko scored! Then it was off for drinks and Indian food with friends, then over to the club Turnmills for DJ Etienne de Crecy, followed by a foray to Ministry of Sound where some friends were shaking it to Sebastian Ingrosso.

NFL at WembleySunday came around and it was tough to drag myself up and out but there was no choice as Wembley Stadium was hosting the big event: the first-ever regular season NFL American football match to be played outside of North America. I’d timed our trip around this event and it was worth it. The game itself – mediocre. The Miami Dolphins are the whipping boys of the league this year and their opponents, the New York Giants, put in a subpar performance when they should have dominated. However, the atmosphere was great as was my role as the expert – explaining how the game is played to my Russian colleagues and their English guests in the section where we sat. It was a great day out.

Can I just take a moment to complain about what NFL football has become? The constant breaks in play for television commercials, which have to be at least double what they were when I was growing up watching the sport, are frustrating beyond belief. Even in the stadium we had to endure commercials (for the Dolphins, who were designated as the home team) on the big screens during odd breaks in the game. I tried to explain to my colleagues why… but failed. There is no reason other than greed, which is basically ruining the game.

Got my new visa on Monday and we flew home the next day. Another fun visit to the British capital.



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