Saturday, December 8, 2012

The greatest sporting moments

Hi everyone,

As we enter December and get ready for the holiday season, a lot of people start making lists of their favorite movies, albums or happenings of the year.
I will get to that a little bit later this month, but before I get to that, I want to share with you what I think are 5 of the greatest sporting moments in history. I have been thinking about this for a long time and, obviously, if, like me,you spend about 30 hours a week watching sport, there are many great sporting moments that I could not include, but the ones listed in this story hold particularly fond memories for me.
So here we go, for a run down of 5 of the greatest sporting moments in my life.

5. Joop Zoetemelk wins the World Cycling Championship.

In 1985, Dutch cyclist Joop Zoetemelk took part in the road race of the world cycling championships. As he was in the autumn of his career, nobody expected him to make any impact and, as it was the last official race he would ever take part in, he was on the team more to make up the numbers and be a mentor to younger racers than to actually compete for the top price. After a race that had involved numerous escape attempts, a group of about a dozen racers escaped from the peloton and built up a decent lead which would eventually prove enough to decide the winner.

As the leading group was far enough ahead to fend off any charges from the chasing pack, the Dutch tv commentators sort of lapsed into that absent minded state that you regularly encounter in cricket commentators, when there is not too much to report on the current state of the game and they wonder off to subjects like the weather, the upcoming Christmas holidays or the state of Australian beaches. This same thing happened to the cycling commentators who, seeing that the lead group, containing amongst others the Italian favorite Moreno Argentin and American Greg Lemond, who would go on to win the Tour de France 3 times in the next 5 years, decided that not much was happening for now. What the commentators, now busy in their assessment of the upcoming football season, hadn't noticed, was that there was a Dutchman in the leading group. With about a mile to go, and Argentin and Lemond both stalling the race and looking at each other, afraid to set up the sprint lest the other rider would follow in their slip stream and jump over them in the final 100 yards or so, Zoetemelk decided that he'd had enough of this and, while the lead group turned a bend in the road, decided to jump the pack and have a go at it.

Apart from it being rather rare that a rider would jump out of the pack this far from the finishing line, it also triggered the commentators to get their minds back to the job at hand, commenting on the race, all of a sudden surprised to see an orange jersey at the head of the pack. Much like the commentators, the other racers in the pack were very surprised by this. The commentators put down their cups of tea and cheered on the 38 year old Zoetemelk to the finishing line, becoming the oldest World Champion in the history of organised cycling.  A truely remarkable race, with a remarkable champion.

4. Hein Vergeer wins the World Speed Skating Championship.

The name Hein Vergeer might not ring a lot of bells to anyone outside of Holland, but he is a local hero where I'm from. I grew up in a town just outside Rotterdam, in the west of Holland and Hein Vergeer, it may be interesting to note, lived across the street from me.
In the 70s and 80s, speed skating titles were generally cut up between the Dutch, the Germans and assorted Scandinavians. Holland, I am proud to note here, holds the all-time record with 43 champions up untill now. 
In 1985, the World Speed Skating Championship took place in Hamar, Norway.

After finishing 8th on the opening distance of 500 meters, and winning the 5000 meters after that, our man finished second on the 1500 meters, often a crucial distance in these championships, and we could start to prepare for the final distance, the traditional marathon ending to an allround speedskating championship, for which only the top 16 riders in the table qualify. This is mostly so because the 10.000 meters isn’t normally the most exciting race to watch and because they have to get the zamboni out after every second race, it takes up the entire afternoon as it is. I won’t bore you with the scoring system that is used for these tournaments, but it basically comes down to the fact that the skating federation uses a very complicated turnover table to calculate all distances back to 500 meter and giving out points based on that. The rider with the lowest number of points at the end wins. In short, what it came down to was that our local boy needed to finish within about 5 seconds of Oleg Bozhyev from the Soviet Union.

Tension mounted. The whole town was collectively holding their breath. Could our local hero win the World Title? The race was a roller coaster and everybody was too stressed to speak. After 25 laps, our boy crossed the finishing line well in time to fend off the competition and the town exploded. I was only 11 years old at the time, but I can remember it as if it were yesterday. Everybody ran out into the streets jumping for joy. The local church minister (or whatever title the local church executive held in his branch of worship) rang the church bells for hours. All pubs were open 24 hours a day for the next 4 days as everyone toasted to our local hero in an ocean of beer. Nobody went to work the next day. The following Wednesday, Hein Vergeer was flown in to the local football ground in a helicopter, to cheers from every single person in town. It was a Hollywood style reception that would have made David Beckham jealous. Hein won the World Title again in 1986 and still lives in town to this day, running a sports marketing agency. In honour of his achievements, a statue of a skater has been placed next to town hall. It was the greatest moment in the history of the town.

3. Skippy scores.

I have never liked AC Milan. I don't know where it comes from, but I simply do not like the team. To be honest, I am not a fan of Italian football in general, and the only Italian football team I can muster some sympathy for is Inter Milan, which may go some way to explain why I do not like their arch rivals. Perhaps it's the fact that they stole the 3 best Dutch players of the 80s, Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard away from Holland. Or maybe it's just because they're a bunch of whining wankers who fall over as soon as someone looks at them.  To cut a long story short.. I don't like AC Milan.

I had moved to Ireland in January of 2007, halfway through the football season, and left behind the Rotterdam Celtic supporters club with some pain in my heart. However, as a sending off gift, apart from a couple of gallons of beer, my friends had entrusted me with the addresses of every serious Celtic pub in Dublin, knowledge I was very happy to use. And so it was that I found myself starting the new year as a Celtic supporter in Dublin, and with the task of making friends with the Celtic supporters club at Frazer's Pub. The pub has since been rebranded as Murray's but the place is basically still the same and is still a hotbed of fanatic Celtic support. To their credit, the local Celtic fans took me in as if I was a long lost son. Everybody was friendly and, as often happens when you show up in a Celtic jersey somewhere, I was greeted with handshakes and beer. One of the most astonishing examples of this came in, of all places, Sarajevo in Bosnia, where the staff of the local Celtic supporters bar were so happy to see a real Celtic supporter, from Ireland no less, that they supplied me with free beer the entire night. As I have said before, the Celtic jersey is worth its weight in gold.
After conveniently winning the league again in 2007, we were set up for another year of Champions League football and we were drawn in a somewhat tricky group with Shaktar Donetsk, our old rivals Benfica (who clearly are still not happy with the fact that we picked up the European Cup in their ground in 1967) and AC Milan. As was normal at the time (and still mostly is, to be honest) we lost all our away games, which left us with the need to get decent results in all the home games. And we certainly did. The first home game was against the dreaded AC Milan and, having lost to Shaktar Donetsk in the first game, we really needed to win. AC Milan were the defending champions, having beaten Liverpool by 2-1 in the final in May,albeit with a fair amount of luck, including a goal that occurred after a Milan player had clearly played a hand ball. Celtic took the lead after about an hour of play, a goal from our substitute captain Stephen McManus, who later, like pretty much the entire Celtic team of that year, moved to Middlesbrough and now earns a living playing in the Hollywood-like surroundings of Bristol City. Milan was quick to respond, and the equaliser, inevitably from the penalty spot, was scored by Kaka (tip: never trust a player whose name sounds like the sound an exotic bird might make).
It was looking like we would be getting another draw, which would leave us at the bottom of the group table with one point from 2 games. This is where Scott McDonald comes in. Scott McDonald is an Australian player of Scottish descent, who was born in Melbourne. He was at one point the most hated man in East Glasgow, after he scored twice in injury time for Motherwell, in the final game of the 2004-2005 season, which handed the Scottish title to a club from South Glasgow that no longer exists. Scott was not the most popular man in Glasgow then. This all changed when Celtic did what most rich and profitable clubs do: buying the player that scored against them. Scott McDonald became a Celtic player and soon after, everybody forgot about that Black Sunday in 2005 and Scott became one of the most popular Celtic players of the decade, mainly because of his incredible ability to score goals from every angle, and because he was just a really nice guy. The reason for his inclusion in this story though, came in the final minute of that match against AC Milan. While the whole of Glasgow, and Celtic supporters the world over were resigned to the 1-1 draw that was on the board, Celtic got the ball in midfield. Milan, as Italian teams are wont to do, pulled back their entire team around the goal so as to obstruct a way through for Celtic. What they hadn't taken into account was that Scott McDonald, due to being a lot shorter than the average Scottish football player, situated himself near the back post, and when a shot at goal was deflected in the direction of the right side corner flag, McDonald stepped out from behind 2 big Italian defenders, tapped the ball into the goal and became part of Celtic legend.
To say that the pub exploded would be an understatement more or less matching the notion that somebody set off a firecracker in Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945. Everybody went completely ape shit and was totally out of their minds for minutes. When the heat of the moment finally died down, minutes after the final whistle had gone, we took note of the surroundings. Not a table or stool was left standing. A young guy who had been standing in front of the big screen and had been at the centre of the celebrations, was bleeding from his face and had an ear ring snapped out of his ear. There was broken glass everywhere and my hair was soaking wet with cider. When I took a shower the next morning, my hair, and pretty much everything else, was still smelling of apples. I didn't care too much, I had a hangover the size of the Grand Canyon, but it had all been worth it. We beat Milan and eventually progressed from the group stages, slightly ahead, again, of Benfica. We went out in the next round to the Barcelona team that went on to become the greatest team of their generation, winning the Champions League in 2006, 2009 and 2011. AC Milan, interestingly, also went out in the second round to Arsenal.  Scott McDonald went on to become a sensation for Celtic, scoring 31 goals in the season and becoming the SPL's top scorer that year.

2. Van Basten beats the Germans.

The greatest frustration in Dutch history is not found in defeat in wars, the failure to get recognised in the world as anything other than a nation of pot heads, or the fact that we managed to collapse 6 governments in the space of a decade. No, fukc all that. The one thing that stands out in Dutch history as The Big Issue is the 1974 World Cup Final.  Let me give you some background here, for those of you that are unfamiliar with the subject. Holland had the best team in the world in the early 70s. Led by Johan Cruyff, the greatest player ever to play the game, Holland played a free flowing, all out attacking style of football that made even Brazil look like a bunch of clumsy hicks from the 3rd division in Scotland. Holland was supreme in every facet of the game and, on the back of Cruyff leading Ajax Amsterdam to a hattrick of European cup wins in the previous 3 years, making it 4 in a row for Holland after Feyenoord had won the cup in 1970, breezed through the World Cup as if it were a string of practice matches against pub league teams. We brushed aside Uruguay, 2 time winners themselves, and Bulgaria as if they weren't there and then settled for a draw against Sweden. In the second round, we thrashed Argentina 4-0, then beat East Germany and set ourselves up for our moment in the spotlight with a 2-0 semi-final win over Brazil. It may be interesting to note, for those of you who are equally obsessed with statistics, like me, that Holland is still the only team in the world that managed to score 2 goals against Brazil in World Cup finals matches on 3 different occasions. 
And so to the Final. The Final took place on the 7th of July and, if everything had gone as planned, I would have been born on that day. As it happened, I was born 10 days late, this to the elation of my father (who was now free to watch the football) and the agony of my mother (who now still had a baby inside her, in the hottest summer on record) as Holland took the field against the hated Germans. Within a minute, we were ahead. Johan Neeskens converted a penalty after 48 seconds. The first German player to touch the ball was their goalkeeper when he picked it out of the net. Surely, things couldn't go wrong from here?

Ofcourse they could. In the 26th minute, the Germans got a penalty themselves and in the 43rd minute, Muller scored a goal that was so ugly that it does not deserve a description here. We lost the final and we would not get back there until 2010 when we, again, lost, to Spain this time.

We would get our revenge though. In 1988, the European Championships were staged in West Germany, in what turned out to be the last tournament in which the German football team was divided in East and West. As you will all recall, about a year and a half later the citizens of East Germany decided that they had had enough of state oppression, walked up to the Berlin Wall and demanded passage to the West, where they were greeted by fellow Germans with flowers and champagne and started what was arguably the greatest party in history. But I digress, let's get back to football.
The group stages weren't very promising. Holland lost to the Soviet Union (in what, again, proved to be the final appearance of the country before it dissolved) by 1-0, then beat England by 3-1, courtesy of a Van Basten hattrick and then needed to beat Ireland to advance to the semi finals. The winning goal came in the 81st minute and was the biggest fluke I'd seen in my life up until then. The ball went in the general direction of the Irish penalty area, and fell to our star long-distance kicker Ronald Koeman, a player known for his ferocious 100-miles-an-hour free kicks which he normally directed at the faces of defenders so as to scare them off and make them duck out of the way the next time he gained possession of the ball.
Rather than pounding the ball into the net, or even in the direction of it, he sliced the ball, sending it to the left side of the pitch with an amount of top spin on it that would make the average Chinese table tennis player dizzy, where it was met by Willem Kieft, a striker who was making a living playing for Italian relegation side Pisa at the time, who tried to head it in the direction of the goal, and also sort of half missed it. In the biggest miracle ever to occur on a football pitch, the ball took on so much spin that it bounced around the Irish goalkeeper and curled its way into the goal. Holland won the game by 1-0 and progressed to the semis, leaving the Irish heartbroken again. Guess who were waiting in the semi final...
Yes, you're right. West Germany.

The game was on a Wednesday. I remember this well, because my mother went off to play table tennis, as she always did on Wednesday, leaving me and my dad to watch the football. This was our little thing together. My dad would always let me stay up late on Wednesdays to watch the European football with him, even when I was only 7 years old. European football in those days, you must understand, was on only 4 or 5 times a year, rather than 3 nights a week, every week, as it is now, so it was sort of a special treat for me. For both of us, but especially my dad, the tension was unbearable. My father, never one for displaying too much excitement about anything, had been tense all day, scanning the papers  and tv channels for news about the game. The whole choice of tv in Holland in the mid 80s consisted of 6 channels, 3 of them German which rendered them instantly unusable for the purposes of reliable news coverage in my father's opinion. And so the game started. It was tight and nervous, neither team wanting to let the opposite side in. Just before the hour mark, Germany took the lead through a penalty, converted by Lothar Matthaus. Lothar Matthaus, it is worth noting, is the 3rd most hated man in Dutch history, ranking just after Franz Beckenbauer and Adolf Hitler. (I would guess that Jan-Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister who managed to be in charge of 4 collapsed governments in the space of 6 years in the first decade of the 21st century, ranks 4th on this list, giving him the notable distinctions that he is both the only non-German on this list as well as the most incompetent politician since Richard Nixon.) With the Germans ahead, and the knowledge that Germans are excellent at protecting a 1 goal lead, if not entirely at playing exciting football, Holland pushed for an equaliser and, oh sweet revenge, it came in the form of another penalty. Van Basten, the greatest forward in the history of football, was brought down in the penalty area and Ronald Koeman once again delivered by converting the penalty. With the scores tied at 1-1 and the game heading for extra time, it seemed as if time stood still. Losing to the Germans yet again was unthinkable. We simply could not live with that idea. Winning the game in Germany would be the ultimate revenge, but surely, we wouldn't be that lucky? The whole country went either very quiet or totally insane as the match went in the inevitable direction of extra time. My dad had gone really quiet. Let me tell you now that my dad is not the most noisy man in the world at the best of times, but even for his standards he became eerily silent.

And then it happened.
With only 2 minutes left on the clock, Dutch midfielder Jan Wouters, a vicious player, noted more for his ability of placing elbows in opponents' faces and generally kicking the shit out of anybody not on his team, rather than his technical abilities, took possession in midfield, moved up the pitch and on the right side of the pitch we could see San Marco, our hero and saviour, move towards the penalty box. Wouters passed the ball towards Van Basten, slightly out of his reach and, while the German defender assigned with the unenviable task of preventing Van Basten from getting to the ball made a desparate lunge towards the ball, Van Basten got his foot in first, made a slide, and managed to hit the ball with the tip of his right foot.
The next 2 seconds, in our experience, lasted forever. The image is still burned on my eyeballs to this day. The ball rolled, agonisingly slow, towards the German goal, where their goalkeeper dived towards it in a desperate attempt to prevent the inevitable. I saw my dad tense up, wanting to scream but unable to do so out of sheer astonishment. The German goalie was late, the ball bounced past him and landed in the sidenet near the far post. For half a second, the entire country was silent. And then erupted. My dad jumped out of his chair, shouted GOAL!! at the top of his lungs and punched the air. I had not seen my dad get this worked up, over anything, ever before. Neither have I seen him getting so excited ever since.

We'd done it. We'd beaten Germany on their own turf and reached the final.

The final was a formality. We played the Soviet Union, or Russian Federation, or whatever the name of the country was that week, and beat them 2-0 through goals by Gullit (one of the most powerful headers ever seen) and, again, Van Basten who scored the 2-0 from an impossible angle at the far side of the goal. The day after the final, Holland's leading newspaper replaced the front page, including the header, with a full page picture of Van Basten lifting the trophy.
Winning the European Championship was great, especially since it is still the only mayor trophy we won in football, but what makes this moment especially great is that my dad, and with him the whole country, had finally gotten their revenge for that lost 1974 final. I saw 14 years of frustration leave my dad's face in a matter of seconds and that made it all the more special.

And now..  


It had been a tense championship. As it always was. The matches were tight but they had all been won. On the day of the final, the atmosphere was electric. Me and my best friend Vincent were in a pub whose owner was also a big fan. I still smoked at the time, and was halfway through my second pack of cigarettes before the final even started. Vincent had smoked more than me and together we had run up a bar tab that ran into 3 figures. Well into 3 figures. We had been trying to ease the tension by drinking steins of lager and shots of Apfelkorn, a weird, schnapps-like liquor that smells of cider, tastes like apple juice gone bad and has the mouth feel of cough syrup. This didn't matter too much, it contained 25% alcohol and that was all that counted. On my way to the toilet, one of the other regulars had jokingly thrown the 8ball from the pool table in my direction and I had responded by headbutting it back in his direction, much to his surprise. The owner of the bar had installed himself at our side of the bar and had lined up his 13 year old son and his wife for bar duty, leaving him free to watch the match, chain smoke and get drunk.
Harry and us got along just fine, especially because he kept buying rounds for us. By the time the match started, you could cut the tension with a knife. Everyone in the bar was hyped up. Could this be our year? Would it finally be our time? We kept smoking drinking and biting our nails. The match was as tight as we had expected, with no time to settle the nerves for either the players or the fans. The bartenders had by now stopped emptying the ash trays as everybody was constantly smoking to relieve the pressure. The lead in the match changed hand a dozen times and eventually, and inevitably, it came to a decider and then to a tie break in the decider.
This was unbearable. I could hardly watch as the players, now clearly struggling through the marathon length of the match, tried to get to the end of it first.
Then it happened, the very end of a long and mentally exhausting championship. The aim, the release, and the following half second seemed to last forever.

And then, with a soft thud, the dart landed in double 8 and Raymond van Barneveld was Champion of the World for the first time. Everybody in the pub went mental, beer flew through the air, group hugs were all around, grown men were crying, all was right in the world and our guy had won the World Championship. Harry, the owner of the bar declared free beer for everybody for the next hour, to the detriment of his wife who had probably hoped that she could knock off her shift after the match, something that was now totally out of the question as her husband now had his mind set on getting really seriously completely drunk with his mates. The party went on until very late. Vincent and I were sharing a house at the time and neither of us could be bothered to go to work the next day, opting instead to have a serious sleep in, and then went out to play pool.  It was an immense achievement from Raymond van Barneveld because, it seems impossible now, darts wasn't a big thing in Holland at the time and was only played by British expats and people with a strange fascination for British pub games, like us. After this victory, darts took off in a major way in Holland and Holland is now one of the powerhouses of darts in the world and every pub has darts teams these days. Darts, in fact, is now the second biggest sport in Holland, after football, both in tv ratings and participation. And we have Barney to thank for that.

And that was it, my favorite sporting moments. Hope you enjoyed reliving them as much as I did.


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