Two good, kiwi blokes give New Zealand their first Gold medal of the Rio Olympics, 2016.
It's been a long time since I wrote about anything other than books in this blog, so thought it was a chance to change that for today.
The Rio 2016 Olympic Games are upon us and I thought I'd share a few thoughts about how I feel about the games, this time around.
Today I want to focus on my favorite sport - Volleyball, and more particularly, the UAAP women's iteration of the game.
Like many other people last Sunday I was glued to my seat to watch the rematch of last season's epic Grand Final series, as the Ateneo Lady Eagles (the current champions) took on the De La Salle Lady Spikers. Even though this was just the first round of the elimination series, such was the anticipation for this game that over 18,000 people packed the Mall of Asia Arena, with no doubt millions more watching the live coverage on Channel 23.
For Ateneo the task was going to be difficult. After representing the Philippines in the Asean University Games prior to Christmas, they had missed the last week of the round and needed to make up games.
After struggling against UP in their first game back, the previous Sunday, they were faced with back to back games on the Saturday and Sunday, to catch up. Fortunately the Saturday game was against perennial easy-beats University of the East, and proved to be nothing more strenuous than a solid, practice workout. So come Sunday, they were ready and primed for their epic match against De La Salle, with the Lady Eagles seeking confirmation of their dominance and the Lady Spikers seeking redemption for last season's final's humiliation.
It was, as promised, an epic encounter with the fortunes swinging first one way and then the other. The game went to the almost mandatory five sets between these two great rivals, and although the score was secondary in many ways, the result was not. Like last year's final, The Ateneo Lady Eagles fought through the tiredness, fought through the difficulties and fought through their opposition, to claim the fifth set and the victory 15-9.
After the game it occurred to me that this Ateneo team really is something special. They have something that all sports teams strive for...that never say die attitude. So what is it that makes this Ateneo team so special - far greater, as a team, than the much vaunted years of "the fab five"?
The first difference that is apparent is the Coach - Tai Bundit. With no disrespect to Roger Gorayeb, who I think is an awesome coach, Tai Bundit has done, with this team of relative rookies, what Roger Gorayeb was unable to do with his "fab five" - made them into winners. When I first heard that Ateneo had hired a coach who spoke no Tagalog and only limited English I remember laughing to myself and thinking; "Well that's Ateneo's chances shot - what a dumb idea." How wrong was I? I have no idea what it is that Coach Tai has brought to these young ladies, but it is definitely something magical. His "Happy, Happy" mantra and the "Heart-strong" rallying call has galvanized this team into something very special.
The sight of the girls sitting down at a timeout in last year's final, with their eyes closed; meditating, was frankly amazing - and yet it worked. Tai Bundit has caught the imagination of the Volleyball faithful. with his victory dances up and down the sidelines and his constant imploring the girls to be happy and to smile on the court. He is a breath of fresh air in the UAAP and clearly a big influence on the team - long may he continue to coach here. He is inspirational!
The next obvious difference between the two teams is just one person.
Without a doubt, Alyssa Valdez encapsulates everything that is special and exciting about the UAAP Women's Volleyball. She is an out and out superstar and when she finally graduates the league will be the lesser for it. It is one of the endearing beauties of the UAAP that every year teams have to find new players to replace their graduating players, but part of me just wishes that Alyssa never has to graduate.
There have been other players in the past that have captured the public's imagination; one can think of Rachel Daquis, who was the poster girl of the league for both her beauty and her ability; Jennylyn Reyes whose heroics as a Libero sent many spectators gasping in awe; and Abby Marano whose swagger and abilities endeared her to the public. But I would suggest that none of these great players can approach Alyssa Valdez for sheer charisma, ability and star-power. The woman is a true phenomenon who defines the sport she plays and yet she never comes across as anything other than humble, sweet and "the girl next door". Millions of boys would love to date her, and millions of girls would love to be her.
She carries the weight of Ateneo's expectations on her shoulders, but she rarely, if ever fails to deliver. Oh, she is human - she does make mistakes (occasionally), but when you see her on the court, playing through yet another pain barrier, you know that when Ateneo gets desperate, they can always go to Alyssa, and she will deliver - and they invariably do.
She is the reason many love this UAAP game and she is responsible for so much of Ateneo's success.
Next on the list of great contributors to this team has to be their Libero, Denden Lazaro. Over the past couple of years since the graduation of the incomparable Jennylyn Reyes, Denden has been quietly and confidently assuming the mantle of the preeminent Libero in the UAAP. One thing that is often forgotten in this game is that without great first-ball reception and accurate setting, a spiker's task is made that much harder. Ateneo have great first-ball reception and much of that is down to Denden.
I often think the sign of a Libero's value to the team is not how many digs or receptions they make in a game, but actually how often the Libero is left on court when it is their team's service. Most coaches switch out the Libero when their team is serving, but if you look closely you will see Denden is often left on the court whether the team is serving or receiving. To me this is a sign of her importance and leadership within this team. She is responsible for saving points in what often seem hopeless situations.
The other star, for me, of the Ateneo Lady Eagles is their setter, Jia Morado. The setter is crucial to the team's ability to score from the spike. You only have to look around the league to realize that so many teams with great spikers are struggling without accurate setting, to see the importance of the setter within the team. The National University Bulldogs have 6'4" Jaja Santiago, a powerful striker in Myla Pablo and several other players of quality, but this season without a settled and quality setter they are struggling to score victories.
The instant Jia Morado came into this team last season, she looked like she belonged. She plays with a confidence that belies her tender experience. I will confidently predict that this season she will rise from number two setter to number one in the league. She is only getting better and better and like the rest of the team she admirably displays the mantra of Coach Tai in "Happy Happy", always looking like she is thoroughly enjoying herself on court. With three more years of eligibility after this, Ateneo will be well served in this role for some time.
The rest of the core of the Ateneo squad all do their bit from time to time. Amy Ahomiro provides variety with her "leftie" spike and when she is on song her services can be awesome and lethal.
Bea de Leon is slowly developing the confidence to use her impressive 6'1" height to her and her team's advantage. As a sophomore she has much to still add to this team over the next few years.
Next in line is one of my favorite players, Mich Morente. Every team needs a character, someone to make them laugh, someone whose enthusiasm is infectious and for Ateneo it seems Mich fills that role admirably. When she is playing well she can be a devastating player, but she brings much more than her play to the court. She brings the joy and excitement that makes high-level sport so enthralling. Even when she or some other team member makes a mistake, Mich is always there to console, to gee up the team and to give them the focus for the next point. She is, in my opinion, one of the key reasons why Ateneo keep defying the odds and winning. She just infuses her team with her bubbly personality.
One final player who sums up the guts and courage of this Ateneo de Manila squad is Ella de Jesus. They call her "the elevator" - for good reason. I have no idea how tall she is, but I suspect about 5' 4" and yet this young lady who you would think should only be a Libero or at best a setter, is in fact one of Ateneo's most deadly spikers. Somehow she gets more height and more hang-time than players much taller then herself. On court she has a look of total determination and she gives everything she has in every game she plays. Nobody could ever accuse "the elevator" of giving less than 100%. She is an inspiration to watch, especially for those of us who are vertically challenged.
So, Ateneo are not just a one-trick pony - they are not just a one woman team. They are the epitome of what a "team" should be; united, dedicated, supportive, passionate and most importantly of all "HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY!"
Sure, when Alyssa and Denden have gone, things will never quite be the same, but somewhere out there in the High School volleyball programs around this country is the next Alyssa Valdez and the next Denden Lazaro, just waiting to be discovered and plucked from obscurity to become true superstars on the UAAP stage.
This is why I love this game and this is why I love this competition.
Roll on Wednesday and the second round of the elimination series. I can't wait!
Yesterday I was privileged to witness, sadly only on television, what will remain for a long, long time in my mind as the top sporting event of 2014. I refer, of course to the amazing final game of the UAAP Season 77 Men's Basketball tournament played out yesterday afternoon at the iconic Araneta Big Dome. It wasn't the game itself that was so inspiring - in fact the National University Bulldogs proved to be quite comfortable winners in the end, over the Far Eastern University Tamaraws. No, what was inspiring for me, was the overall commitment and effort required by the NU Bulldogs to even reach the final, let alone win it.
Now those of you familiar with my writings, or with me personally, will be sitting there right about now tut-tutting to yourself: "Mmmm, Grant is writing about basketball - a sport he professes to have little time for - what has happened? Has the world altered on its axis or something - have we unwittingly entered a parallel universe? Well, let me put your minds at rest - I admit I was wrong, if not about basketball, then certainly about the College variety of basketball that is played in the UAAP. In June this year, when UAAP Season 77 basketball was about to saturate the television screens every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday afternoon for the next four months, I had a simple choice to make. I could either dismiss the game and find something else to occupy my leisure time, or I could get with the program and actually give it a try - see if I could become hooked by this game. The votes are in - the results are tallied and the answer is plain and simple - a resounding YES! From the opening game of the season I became drawn into the whole College vs College rivalry that is so much a part of Philippine sport. I even found myself becoming an "expert" on the game, questioning the decisions of coaches, players and referees. Yes, I truly had become an aficionado of this game and I was enjoying every minute of it.
It seemed to me that this season's contest was overall much tighter than the previous year's, to which I'd just given a passing glance from time to time. Certainly there were the perennial "easy-beats" in Adamson and the University of the Philippines, but it seemed that on any given day, any of the other six teams could defeat each other. Many of the games went right down to the final buzzer - a situation that would often bring out the "instant" heroes, such as; the Kiefer Ravena's, the Mac Belo's, the Roi Sumang's and the Gelo Alolino's. The games were tight and exciting to watch - I was really getting into this stuff and much to my wife's amazement and I might add at times not so silent sufferance, I would regale her with tales of that day's games (and no doubt bore her to tears).
As someone who obviously didn't go to school here, I needed to find myself a team among the eight to "support". Having a daughter attending UP leant me initially in that direction, but one game of watching the "easy-beats" quickly dissuaded me of realistically supporting them to achieve anything more than the odd token win against Adamson, so I looked at the other options. Like most New Zealander's I am drawn to the under-dog, which in my mind ruled out Ateneo, De La Salle, UST and FEU, all four of whom were regular finalists over the past few seasons - in fact I was amazed to hear that every final since 1993 (except this year!) had featured either Ateneo, or De La Salle, or both. My choice of team to "support" was therefore either the University of the East Red Warriors or the National University Bulldogs. For a while I followed both teams closely and it soon became apparent that UE appeared to have some serious discipline issues with some of its players. NU, on the other hand, seemed an incredibly closely knit team, with a real purpose. As last year's number one seeds, after the elimination round, with their twice to beat advantage, they had found themselves quickly bundled out of the finals by a then rampant UST. They were seeking redemption this year, and despite losing their star player, they seemed both intent and capable of claiming it. So - it was NU all the way for me from then on.
As I said earlier, this year's contest was very unpredictable. Even, the struggling UP Fighting Maroons could have upset the apple cart at one stage when they heart-breakingly lost to Ateneo during the elimination round. With just a second or two left on the clock, they were faced with two free throws - get one (extra time), get them both (beat the competition leaders)...they missed them both of course - and I guess that summed up their entire season in just one brief ten- second period - missed opportunities. But for all that, they were a side that promised more and played better generally than in previous seasons.
So, what was so special about NU's achievement in winning UAAP Season 77 - put simply, they displayed all the guts, grit, determination, character (and yes - humility) that makes a great team. They overcame immense odds to achieve this victory and it is a tribute to their coach Eric Altamirano who fashioned a team of ordinary sportsmen into world-beaters. He gave them an utter belief in themselves and they paid him back in spades, with the title. Just for a second, let's consider the path to the final for this amazing team:
1/ Finished the elimination round tied for 4th and 5th place with the UE Red Warriors.
2/ Defeated UE in an incredibly tight play-off game 51-49, to claim the last final-four berth.
3/ Had to beat the number one seeds, Ateneo Blue Eagles twice, just to make the final.
4/ Ateneo had only lost twice this season, in pool play, but interestingly enough their two losses were to the NU Bulldogs - NU seemed to have the "wood" on the Ateneo squad.
5/ Game one of the semi-finals sees NU prevail 77-74, after just managing to survive another one of Ateneo's legendary fourth quarter comebacks - forcing a do-or-die second game.
6/ Do-or-die game two - and what drama! NU lead 65-63, there's nine seconds left and it's Ateneo's ball - but - some of the lights go out and both teams end up waiting around 45 minutes for the lights to be restored. Finally, as expected it's Kiefer Ravena driving to the hoop for the tie and the extra time. He doesn't miss these shots - except when the man they call the Block Mamba - Alfred Aroga is around. Aroga leaps high and blocks Ravena's shot - the game is NU's - the final beckons.
NU have done to Ateneo exactly what UST did to them last year - redemption is achieved - now on to the final.
NU's last appearance in a UAAP Final was 1960 - they lost that one. Their one and only victory in the UAAP Men's Senior Basketball tournament was in 1954. It was sixty years of history, sixty years of disappointment that needed to be wiped away for this NU squad to achieve their greatness, their sporting nirvana.
There was no Ateneo, no De La Salle, and no UST in this year's final. They said it just wouldn't be the same without those teams - and they were dead right! It wasn't the same - it was a whole lot better! FEU's Coach Nash Racela summed up his and many others feelings about the situation at the press conference following their disposal of De La Salle in the semi-finals. "This is the best thing that could have happened to the UAAP". I can't help but agree with him. Any sport, any competition, requires teams to be able to not just aspire to greatness, to reach the top, but to actually be able to achieve that. NU and FEU had shown that any team could win the UAAP if they play with their hearts and they devise a plan to do it. Well done to both teams for their advance to the finals.
And so to the finals - Game one did not augur well for the National University Bulldogs. All season their game had revolved around their resolute defense. It was their ability to shut down the opposing team's superstars that had got them this far, but perhaps it was nervousness, or just the amazing sense of occasion of a UAAP Final, but they lost their way and they forgot to defend. For whatever reason, after a bright start, the NU star faded and FEU ground them into dust, eventually coming out the victors 75-70. It was on to game two and hopefully three, for NU to erase sixty years of mediocrity.
Game two and three were played on consecutive Wednesdays at the Araneta Big Dome. Perhaps in response to the loss in the final's first game, the NU supporters seemed to come out in their thousands to support their Alma Mater. Yes, there were plenty of FEU supporters there too, but somehow it just seemed that the sheer fervor of the tide of NU supporters might be enough to carry their beloved team to victory.
All other schools may wish to take note: Attendance Game 2 - 24,896 rabid Bulldog and Tamaraw supporters (A record basketball crowd for the Big Dome). Attendance Game 3 - 25,118 (A new record attendance!). You're right, it definitely wasn't the same without Ateneo and De La Salle in the finals.
For the record, Coach Altamirano and his NU team returned to basics and in the end quite easily brought the victory home for the Bulldogs. Holding FEU to just 47 in game two and 59 in game three was the key to their victory. As Final's MVP Alfred Aroga said after the game - "You don't win a championship by offense, you win it with defense." NU reverted to what they knew best and finally broke their sixty year hoodoo. With key players Troy Rosario, Glenn Khobutin and others graduating, who knows if the NU Bulldogs can recreate Season 77 next year and go on to build a dynasty. It doesn't matter - for my mind, what matters is that UAAP Season 78 promises to be even tighter, even more competitive and even more exciting than this amazing Season 77 we have just witnessed.
There were many heroes for NU: Finals MVP Alfred Aroga, Glenn Khobutin, Troy Rosario and Gelo Alolino to name a few, but one often overlooked player I think deserves special mention is Nico Javelona. At "just" 6' 1" he is one of the shorter members of the team. The first time I saw him play, I thought..."My God, NU have a schoolkid playing for them." He just looks like a little boy, but his performance in defense, against Kiefer Ravena especially, and his three point shots just when they are needed made an enormous contribution to this team's success. In summary, NU struck me as a well coached, a well managed and a well behaved group of young men. They thoroughly deserved their victory and all power to them. So fitting also that a member of that winning NU team of 1954, Nestor Sepida, was on hand at the Araneta Coliseum to witness his beloved Bulldogs again taste victory.
CONGRATULATIONS TO THE NATIONAL UNIVERSITY BULLDOGS!
To my way of thinking this type of tournament, this type of victory - the triumph of the underdog is truly what sport is all about. This past Wednesday The UAAP, The National University Bulldogs, their fans, their alumni, and even little, old me, achieved sporting nirvana. What a fantastic day it really was! Bring on Season 78!
BUT FIRST - BRING ON NOVEMBER 22nd and the start of the UAAP VOLLEYBALL SEASON!
OH! JUST LIVING THE DREAM!
As the World Cup heads into the last sixteen stage, it is a good opportunity to share some thoughts on the group stage and the first two weeks of exciting competition.
I'm not a football (or soccer, as I grew up in New Zealand calling it) fanatic, but with saturation coverage on free-to-air television here in The Philippines, I have to admit being caught up in World Cup Fever and I must say, thoroughly enjoying most of the football I've seen.
Two things, in particular, have struck me over these first two weeks of games:
1/ The sheer volume of goals being scored. I remember watching the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa and complaining about how few goals were being scored. I had a special interest in that World Cup as my own home team had qualified, a rare occurrence, but I can honestly say I've enjoyed the first two weeks of this tournament way more than the 2010 version. It just seems to this non-aficionado of the "Beautiful Game", that goal scoring is what the game is supposed to be about. I'm sure all the experts will jump on me and tell me that defense is what wins games, and a 0-0 draw can be just as exciting, if not more exciting than a 4-2 scoreline. That may be so, if the game flows through your veins, like Guinness flows through an Irishman's veins, or Caipirinha does for Brazilians. But to those of us who are just casual observers of the World Cup, it really is goals that matter and there have been plenty of them already, many of them spectacular. After 40 games we have seen 116 goals. At the corresponding time in 2010 there were 92 goals. This morning's 0-0 draw between Costa Rica and England may have dragged down the average (more on that game later), but nonetheless, the first two weeks have been full of excitement and most importantly for me...GOALS! Perhaps things will tighten up more once the competition gets more serious in the final 16, but I hope not. I hope we continue to see free-flowing football that has been the norm for these first two weeks of the competition.
2/ Despite the high number of goals being scored, this World Cup so far has been highlighted for me by the performance of one of the game's often unsung heroes; the Goalkeepers. As a very, very average goal-keeper back in High School, I do identify with the loneliness and angst of goalkeeping. It is the one position on the field where you can go from hero to zero in an instant. There is perhaps no more exciting action in a game of football than to see a goalkeeper, at full stretch, tipping a ball around the corner, or over the crossbar - saving his team from what had seemed a certain goal. It is an intensely lonely position back there as the last line of defense. There have been some absolutely phenomenal performance by goalkeepers in this first two weeks of the World Cup. One of the things I've particularly liked is that some of these phenomenal performances by goalkeepers have come from the less "sexy" teams at this World Cup. Nobody probably has more epitomized the fearless goalkeeper, determined to keep his goal intact and his sheet clean, so far than Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa. Mexico would hardly have been considered a glamour team heading into this World Cup, but on the back of Ochoa's heroics, they now prepare for a last-16 showdown against The Netherlands. He finally did concede a goal in the last seconds of their game against Croatia, but by then they had already qualified. It was his brilliant performances in all three games, that has earned him such high accolades. His performance against the superstar Brazilians in earning his team a surprise 0-0 draw, was perhaps one of the finest goalkeeping displays seen at a World Cup. He was supreme in denying the high-flying Brazilians at every turn. I understand Ochoa is currently club-less for the upcoming Club season. I'm sure that won't last long following his heroics at this World Cup.
Two more goalkeepers who have provided some fantastic performances for this first two weeks are Keylor Navas of Costa Rica and Tim Howard of the United States. Navas was superb for his unfancied Costa Rican team, in the shock victories against Uruguay and Italy. He was equally unperturbed by anything England could throw at him in their scoreless draw this morning.
Tim Howard's moment of brilliance, for me, was in the game against Portugal. One-nil down, with half-time looming, Portugal looked set to add to the scoreline and head to the break two-nil up. Had the US fallen behind by two at that point it is doubtful they could have come back to almost take the game. His superb double save, tipping wide from Eder, after having diverted Nani's initial effort onto the post, gave his side the boost it needed heading into the break. The US were cruelly denied an historic victory only by a perfect Christiano Ronaldo cross in the final seconds of the game that found Varela's head and flew like a guided missile into the roof of the net. Tim Howard can take much of the kudos for the US's excellent results thus far.
As the tournament moves out of the group stage, long may the goalkeepers continue to provide us with breathtaking acrobatics and stunning examples of their craft. I love it!
Some questions, as the tournament moves into the final 16:
1/ Are England as awful as they appear to be?
In a word - YES! I'm thrilled they've gone home now. I expect a lot more from an England team than this team delivered. Their 0-0 draw against Costa Rica this morning was symptomatic of their entire tournament. They couldn't hold onto possession, their passes were woefully inaccurate and their shooting at goal was appalling. Yes, I realise you were in the "Group of Death" with Italy and Uruguay, but Costa Rica? Really boys, is this the best you can do? The commentator was trying his best not to rubbish his own team and find some positives to take out of the tournament, but really were there any? Their new superstar, the 19-year old Raheem Sterling had a few glorious moments against Italy, but against Uruguay and as a substitute against Costa Rica, was virtually non-existent, well; when he wasn't giving the ball away to the opposition, anyway. Another who offered a glimmer of hope for England was Daniel Sturridge, who scored a pearler of a goal in their first game against Italy, but despite working hard in every game frequently showed his inexperience in front of goal. He had many, many shots in the three games, few of which troubled the goalkeepers. Who else did they have to offer us? Steven Gerrard and Frank Lamphard, both at the end of long and distinguished careers for their country, were shadows of the players they once were. The indomitable Wayne Rooney, did show flashes of the brilliance he is capable of, but all in all, it was just too little, not often enough. England are known in the Footballing World as "The Three Lions" but at Brazil 2014, they were more appropriately, "The Three Pussycats!"
2/ What happened to Spain?
Two words: Time and Fame!
Time has caught up with the great Spanish side of the past eight years. Since winning the 2008 European Trophy, this Spanish team has ruled the world. They followed Euro 2008, with victory at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and continued on their winning way at Euro 2012. This Spanish team was the best in history. The Coach Vincente Del Bosque stuck with the veterans who had won the back-to-back European titles and the 2010 World Cup when there was a wealth of young talent pushing to break into the team.
For six years Spain ruled the footballing roost with their wonderful, crisp, possession fueled style of play, but they left it too long to bring in their youngsters. They did manage a final respectable result against Australia, with a 3-0 scoreline, but if Spain is to rise to its former glory again in time for the defense of their European Title in 2016, they need to let go of the elder statesmen and embrace the exciting young players, many of whom play in the Spanish Club Scene. The early exit in Brazil may offer a chance to usher in change. It's probably time for Xavi, Alonso and Cassilas to hang up their international boots and see if a new, younger breed can turn Spain around for their Euro 2016 defense in France.
I think the other problem that Spain faced is that they started to believe their own press. They started to believe that they were unbeatable. That is a sure sign that the fall is about to come. Innovative and creative sides throughout history that have created dynasties, always tend to crash once they start to believe in their own superiority and infallibility. A team that creates a new style and leads the world somehow seems to forget that every other team then sets about coming up with a way to beat that new style. You only have to look at the Rugby World Cup to see evidence of this. The New Zealand All Blacks, had been the dominant rugby side in almost every year since 1986, yet in the 25 year period until 2011, they had only won the Rugby World Cup twice, in 1986 and in 2011. Too often they believed their own press, that they only had to show up to win and they forgot that in the period between World Cups, all the other teams were frantically searching for one thing...a way to beat them! Invariably, someone did. I think probably Spain suffered from this malady also in 2014.
3/ What has happened to the Asian Teams?
Put simply: I don't know! What I do know is they haven't performed up to expectations.
I guess Iran have done OK, but I don't really think of Iran, as an Asian team, despite them playing in the Asian Confederation. The same applies to Australia, I don't think of them as Asian either, plus of course with 3 straight losses they haven't really done anything worth writing home about.
The two "truly" Asian teams in the competition are Japan and South Korea, both of whom I suspect, were expected to do much, much better than they have. Japan have been pretty abysmal really. Their results included being thumped by Columbia, well beaten by The Ivory Coast and managing a 0-0 draw against lowly Greece. The J-League is one of the world's more exciting and competitive club leagues and much was expected of this team of J-League stars boosted by overseas based players. Japan had one of the easier groups of the World Cup to fight its way out of, and yet they performed only average at best. There was no way this team would emulate the 2010 team and qualify for the round of 16. A disappointing campaign for all concerned in the Blue Samurai.
What about South Korea, Asia's most prolific qualifier for World Cup Finals? As I write this they still have one game to play tomorrow against group high-flyers Belgium. If they manage to unseat Belgium AND Algeria lost to Russia they could still qualify for the final 16, but the odds are stacked against them, as they sit at the bottom of Group H, on one point. I've seen both Korean games...their 1-1 draw against Russia and their 4-2 loss to Algeria. Frankly, they are not a team that inspires. Their defense is suspect and although they never stop trying, they have not impressed me at all. The glory days of a semi-final appearance in 2002 are long gone., I suspect South Korea need to go back home and study the way the game has changed. They still appear to be playing a style from a decade ago. They need; defenders prepared to commit themselves, and their bodies, to tackles; some strikers who know how to score; and a coach who understands what is necessary to win these days.
My Dream Finalists: I would love to see some real flair in the final. My dream final would be:
Columbia vs The Netherlands
I have absolutely no idea if the draw would allow such a final...they might meet in the round of 16 or the quarter-finals or something, but I think this would be a great final. Why?
I've loved watching Columbia in the group stages. They are a team with no real superstars, but tons of flair and play well as a team. They love to score goals and they are exciting to watch.
The Netherlands: I've always had a soft spot for them. They always show so much style and flair in the early parts of the tournament but so often seem to come crashing down to a boring Germany or Spain or someone else, later on. I'm a big fan of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie and I would just love to see them do well at Brazil 2014. Also, I like their orange strip...a very logical reason for loving them.
Lets face it...the Yellow of Columbia versus the Orange of The Netherlands, would be an interesting sight.
The most likely finalists:
Brazil vs Germany
Again I have no idea if the draw will allow this final to happen, but I strongly suspect Germany will be there or thereabouts when the spoils of victory are handed out. They usually are. Brazil...well, it is their tournament after all. They've played well to date, without being totally spectacular, but they do have the players to make it happen.
All I can say; is bring on the round of 16!
I can just hope that the second two weeks of this awesome tournament lives up to the excitement and goals of the first two weeks. For a non-football fan, it's been a really enjoyable experience thus far. Long may it continue!
The question is: How did a self-confessed sports junkie from New Zealand, brought up on a sporting diet that centred itself around The All Blacks (Rugby) and The Black Caps (Cricket)' suddenly find himself totally enamoured with the sport of Volleyball? This was a sport that two years ago he knew absolutely nothing about and had always dismissed as "nothing special".
As I have outlined in my story on Philippine Sport, elsewhere in this website, my sports fix, such as it was, since I arrived in the Philippines, had been limited to a diet of Basketball, Boxing and then more Basketball. Trust me - Basketball is a national obsession here. It dominates the free-to-air sports programming in this country, like no other.
Anyway, to address the burning question I posed at the start of this blog: Why Volleyball?
The easiest answer to this question is possibly the most obvious. What is it about pretty, young girls, in cute uniforms, performing serious acrobatic manoeuvres on a volleyball court, in a sporting contest, that is so appealing? Now, of course, I'm not going to deny this attraction of the game for a second...I may be getting on in years, but I'm not dead yet! No red-blooded male could fail to be stirred by the sheer athleticism, artistry and commitment of these modern day amazons.
Undoubtedly, aesthetically this game has a lot going for it...but this alone was never going to be enough to capture my attention, my fascination and my complete admiration for these sporting superstars...for that is what they have rapidly become in this Country. Volleyball is without a doubt the game that has captured the imagination of people from all across this archipelago. Fans, it seems can just not get enough of the swagger of an Abby Morano, the ice-cold stare of a Mika Reyes, the sheer ebullience of a Jen Reyes and of course the girl-next-door appeal of an Alyssa Valdez.
These Volleyball stars, it seems to me, epitomize what sport has always supposed to have been about: Two teams or individuals who give their all in a sporting endeavour, no quarter asked, and no quarter given. Yet at the end of the contest, irrespective of the result, they resume their genuine friendships with each other. On the court, they give everything they have in the pursuit of victory, but off the court, they are humble and self-effacing, regardless of whether they tasted victory or defeat.
In this age of ruthlessly professional sport, often mired in ego, arrogance, claims of corruption and bad behaviour off and on the court, these young ladies have brought a breath of fresh air with their demeanour and attitudes. This I believe, more than anything is why they have captured the hearts and minds of so many average Filipinos. They bring their own special charm to the gladiatorial contest that is sport in the 21st Century...and like millions of my fellow countrymen...I adore them.
When I saw my first game of Volleyball in December 2012; from the very first I was hooked. The game is fast-paced and exciting. The positions, the tactics, even why one player wore a different coloured jersey from the others were all a mystery to me then, but I knew instantly that this game was going to capture my heart and my attention for many years to come.
The first Volleyball I watched was the UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines). Inter-collegiate sport in most countries has the ability to excite and polarise its audience. The Philippines is no different in that respect. Whatever your Alma Mater was (or you wished it had been) then that was your team that you followed with passion and verve. It didn't matter that The University of the East Red Warriors were the perennial “wooden-spooners” in the competition, you still dreamed of that wonderful day when an unknown, new star would emerge from the student body and would carry your beloved UE to great heights. This is what makes collegiate fans so passionate...that eternal dream of greatness, or the memories of the great teams of the past. That is what sustains and succours the fan through the sad, lean years of defeat.
The UAAP volleyball season runs from December to early March, breaking for Christmas, so for three months I had a steady, regular fix of two games a day, three days a week. My Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays became organised around the two games that would be played that day. The TV was mine...no arguments please...from 2pm to 6pm on those days. I won't lie; I wallowed in this constant diet of a new and exciting sporting contest to revel in. I became an expert in tactics, in team structure and in player knowledge. I even found out why the Libero wore a different coloured jersey. For three months I was in sporting nirvana...and I LOVED it.
When on March 6, 2013, the De La Salle Lady Spikers crushed the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the second game of their best of three series and my little Volleyball world came crashing down. De La Salle, with their almost robot-like efficiency led by Michelle Gumabao, supported by Abby Morano, Ara Galang, the Taft Tower Mika Reyes and the rest of that incomparable team had completed the three-peat and were Champions for the third consecutive year. That final game at the Mall of Asia arena had attracted a live crowd of just on 19,000 rabid spectators. Volleyball had arrived and was seemingly top of the Filipino consciousness.
One of the most exciting things about the College scene is that students have just five years to make their mark in the top flight. For some, like Ara Galang or Bernadette Pons they become stars in their freshman year, but for others it takes a little longer. Take Carmina Aganon for example. For four years she served dutifully as a bit-player for the National University team. She got court-time for sure, especially when the team was well ahead in the game, but she rarely, if ever got a starting berth. This last season, her final, was her time to shine. She started almost every game and she developed into a vital cog of the up and coming NU team. In fact she obviously impressed the owners of the professional league teams so much that she was picked up in the first ever draft last month and is now playing for the Petron Blaze Spikers.
This constant turnover of players in the UAAP and the NCAA is one of the features that make these competitions so special. Each year the coaches are faced with new teams and the loss of old stars. The questions of how will Ateneo cope without the "Fab 5" or how can UST recover from the loss of Dimaculangan, Ortiz and Banaticla, dominate pre-season discussions. It makes for an exciting new season each year.
But, now it was all over. What was I to do for my Volleyball fix? Woe and betide poor me! Would I really have to wait until December to experience the thrill again of the Adamson Soaring Falcons, the UP Fighting Maroons, or the UST Golden Tigresses? Indeed it was sad times for little, old me. I was experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms and took to the internet reading everything I could find about volleyball in this Country.
It was like a "eureka" moment when I stumbled across an article about something called the "V-League". Oh my God, there was another volleyball league...and guess what? It featured many of the teams from the UAAP, plus some other Colleges thrown in for good measure. My first question of course: would it be on free-to-air television? The answer was a qualified YES! It would be on Channel 11 - GMA's News Channel, but it would be delayed coverage...no matter! For two months or so, I got to watch my beloved Volleyball every day except Sunday, from 1-3 in the afternoon...sheer bliss. Naturally I had to stop reading or watching the news for the fear of hearing the result before I saw the game...but that's was a tiny price to pay.
It seemed that Volleyball was the flavour of the month as everyone in the media thronged to cover it. Quite by chance I discovered another competing competition on TV5. This was the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and included a host of Colleges I'd never seen before; San Beda, Arellano, St Benilde, Jose Rizal and others. I was in seventh heaven, with Volleyball coming out of my ears.
The V-League also ran a second conference later in the year, which was called an Open Conference and gave an opportunity for older players - stars of the UAAP from yesteryear to strut their stuff and show they still had what it takes to excite and thrill and audience. I was introduced to players who had been stars at College long before I arrived here and still had the goods. I rejoiced in the dynamism of yesterdays heroes; names like: Aiza Maiso, Susan Roces, Ruby de Leon, Joy Cases, Melissa Gohing, Cha Cruz...the list goes on and on. I couldn't have been happier!
Volleyball had reached so deeply into the Filipino psyche by this time, that in the middle of last year a group of people decided the time was ripe to start up a professional league...a league that could give opportunities to those volleyball stars who had completed their College playing days with the UAAP, the NCAA or some other competition, but still had the love and sheer joy of the game and the need to express themselves on the court.
Now, don't get me wrong...I'm not anti-professional, but I have seen, as we all have, some of the evil, nasty consequences that can come from professional sports. Even as I write this, my home country of New Zealand is experiencing the gut-wrenching, devastating news that some of their greatest heroes growing up, in the sport of Cricket, have been involved in match-fixing. Professionalism brings money into a sport and where money goes, sadly greed and avarice will inevitably follow.
This new professional league is young, exciting and unfortunately, for now anyway, restricted to Pay-TV. My hope is that the exemplary attitude of the girls that represent their Colleges, on the court, will carry over to their professional careers. This is a wonderful opportunity for the current darlings of the Philippine sporting environment to cement themselves forever in the tapestry of Philippine culture. I wish the league all the success in the future.
I couldn't possibly leave this tale, without a mention of the poor, forgotten, down-trodden men who play Volleyball. For, perhaps the most obvious of reasons, it has been the women that have captured the nation's attention and the television ratings...but all is not lost for the men. The second conference of the new professional league included a bracket of four men's teams. The final was shown on free-to-air television and I can honestly say, on this occasion, the men's final was more exciting and more action-packed than the woman's final.
Similarly the men have gained a foothold in the UAAP coverage with a "game of the week" being replayed on a Friday afternoon. The games have thrown up a new set of heroes, just male this time. I have truly admired the power and determination of Peter Torres, Mark Alfafara and Reuben Inaudito, among others. Men's volleyball differs from Women's Volleyball in much the same way that Men's Tennis differs from Women's Tennis. Each brings its own special characteristics to the table and each is exciting in its own right. The men are all about power, all about that decisive spike. Their rallies tend to be short and sharp. There aren't many liberos, anywhere around, who can hope to return a perfectly hit Peter Torres spike. When these guys hit the ball...it stays hit. Their power and athleticism are a joy to observe and marvel at.
The women hit the ball pretty damn hard too, but often being shorter than the men, and less powerfully built there is more likelihood of a spike being returned. The rallies can be very long at times and it is the scrambling, do anything to recover that ball defence that brings crowds to its feet. That evokes the involuntary "wow!" or the screams of disbelief from the audience. The women bring a grace and beauty to their athleticism that, as a fan, is hard to deny.
Given a choice, I'd probably watch the women play over the men, but I'd happily watch the men play if that was all that was on to watch. Volleyball is in my soul now and I don't ever expect it to leave.
Will Volleyball ever rival Basketball for the top spot here in The Philippines? I doubt it to be honest, but the truth is...it doesn't have to. Volleyball has arrived in its own right, and commands an audience of committed, dedicated fans who love the game with an absolute passion. It doesn't need to take on Basketball...it has carved out its own special niche in all of our hearts.
The game soared to even greater heights this last March as the UAAP Season 76 season drew to a close. The finals series of this tournament was a microcosm of what sport is all about. It had everything going for it: David versus Goliath; the crushingly dominant De La Salle Lady Spikers, vying for their fourth consecutive title, against the rebuilding Ateneo Blue Eagles; the De La Salle coach Ramon de Jesus, with something like 17 titles under his belt against the new coach for Ateneo, Tai Bundit...who had little or no Tagalog and whose English appeared to be limited to just a few words, "fun, heart and defence".
It truly was a series that redefined the sport in this Country. It was the type of final series that sports fans live to see. It had all the ingredients of high drama that makes for such compelling viewing...in fact...it deserves a story all of its own!
WATCH THIS SPACE!
"Volleyball - The Game That Has Stolen a Nation's Heart"