Tuesday, March 31, 2009

World Cup Qualifying - Denmark in October?

World Cup Qualifying

The FIFA World Cup is the biggest single-sport event in the world today. Held every 4 years, it brings together 32 teams from all regions to play in a month-long tournament that features 63 games, culminating in a final that is watched by some 300 million people.

Most sports enthusiasts are aware of the World Cup, but only the most fanatical football fans follow the qualifying games that decide which 31 teams (the host country is automatically given a berth) make the tournament.

Each FIFA confederation runs its own tournament to fill its allocated spots. For example, UEFA, the European federation, has 13 spots, while the North and Central American Federation (CONCACAF), has 3 guaranteed spots and a chance to win a 4th in a playoff with a South American team. Games are held on international match days, when club teams release players to their national teams and most top-tier national leagues don't play. When a full slate of games is available in each region, such as on March 28th and April 1st, it is a football fan's dream.

A few surprises in the making

The best place to follow the qualification process is at Wikipedia. Each region's standings and schedule are easily accessible and allow for quick travel planning.

For the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, 204 nations took part in the qualifying tournament which began back in late 2007 and is still underway in each confederation except Oceania. The qualification period ends in November of this year, which means there are only a few match days left, and so we can start to see potential upsets in some of the qualifying groups.

The final African tournament has just begun, but already Cameroon and Morocco have lost to inferior opposition. The Ivory Coast won their first match, but it was marred by tragedy as 22 people died in a stampede, a seemingly regular occurrence in African football.

In Asia, Japan and Australia look like solid bets to qualify from Group A, but Group B is surprisingly led by North Korea. This Wednesday's game in Seoul between South Korea and North Korea is huge, but will get little recognition outside Asia.

CONCACAF is also in the early stages of their final tournament, and as usual, the USA, Mexico, and Costa Rica are leading the way, but there's plenty of football left to be played.

The South American tourney has passed the halfway point, and favourites Brazil are lagging in 4th place, still good enough to qualify but disappointing their legions of fans. The upcoming home match against laggards Peru should help Brazil solidify their place though. Third-place Chile host 5th-place Uruguay on the same day in a game that is critical to both teams chances.

The Oceania tournament has finished with New Zealand the beneficiaries of Australia's move to the Asian confederation. They will play the 5th place Asian team in a home-and-home playoff with the winner moving on to South Africa.

Last but not least is Europe, which hosts the most exciting tournament. With 53 nations participating in 9 groups, the chances for a major upset are high. Already we see Portugal and Sweden in trouble in group 1 as Denmark and Hungary have started quickly. It would be a shame if Cristiano Ronaldo did not have a chance to shine on the world stage.

Spain, England, and the Netherlands have solid leads in their respective groups, while defending World Cup holders Italy have the Irish hot on their heels.

Each of the remaining match days has several interesting encounters. I encourage you all to bookmark the Wikipedia page and follow along.

Trip idea takes shape

While looking at the upcoming schedule for the qualifying games, I noticed that Denmark's last two matches are at home, and scheduled against Sweden and Hungary. Given the potential for this group to go down to the wire, it seems like a good chance to catch some interesting and meaningful games while visiting an area of the world I've yet to see.

With cheap flights to London now available on Air Asia (who should be flying to Japan later this year), I'm already thinking of a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur, a weekend of English soccer and then a few days in Copenhagen for some World Cup games. I'll keep you posted on the developments.



Update: I had to find a job in October, so no Europe trip this year. Hoping for England and Spain in 2010.

Monday, March 30, 2009

2009 Rugby Junior World Championship in Japan!

While planning my trip to Australia, I noticed on a major rugby website that the International Rugby Board (IRB) would be holding the 2009 Junior World Championship in Japan. The tourney consists of 5 match days between June 5th and 21st, and takes place in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. All of the major rugby-playing countries will have their junior teams there and it should be a very entertaining tournament.

One of the problems with international rugby is only a few countries play it well, and so the Rugby World Cup has far too many one-sided matches. Unlike soccer, it is nearly impossible for a less-talented side to win in rugby, and it is tough for the lesser teams to make significant improvements.

The JWC is a chance to see whether some of the second-tier nations such as Canada and Japan will be able to compete with the more established rugby powers. I think the talent level at the younger age might be a bit closer, and with only 16 teams participating in the tournament, there should be less weak teams and more close games. I'll be going to at least one match day in Tokyo and will update you here.



Update: New Zealand won the tournament and neither Canada nor Japan won a single game. So much for my expectations on that front.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Congratulations Japan! Now why is the NPB so boring?

The Final

The WBC final was the 5th time that Japan and Korea faced off in the tournament. Although Japan had beaten them handily in their first meeting, Korea had won the next two before Japan won the final game in the second round to even the series at 2-2. Both teams won their semi-final games easily to set up the winner-take-all championship game.

And it was a great game! Japan had a 3-1 lead after 7 but gave up a run in the 8th to set up a thrilling finish. In the bottom of the ninth, phenom Yu Darvish was brought on to close it. After two walks and two strikeouts, Bum Ho Lee was batting for Korea. Down to his last strike, he reached out and poked a wicked slider into left field to tie the game and send us to extras. A Classic Comeback!

But the Japanese were not fazed. In the top of the 10th, two singles sandwiched around a sacrifice bunt put men on 2nd and 3rd with 2 out and Ichiro at the plate. Apparently the manager, In Sik Kim, asked that Ichiro be walked, but the Korean catcher misunderstood and so they pitched to him. It was a fatal mistake as Ichiro stroked a perfect single to center field to score 2 runs and lead Japan to their 2nd consecutive world championship as Darvish shut the Koreans down in the 10th.

Well deserved!

A couple of points to make. First, I think the baseball world recognizes that the Asian game, based on preparation, fundamentals, teamwork, and speed and defense is just as good, if not better, than the power game used by the more "traditional" baseball countries. Two world championships and an Olympic title are proof. Mike Bauman wrote a good piece on this here.

I'd like to stress the preparation aspect a bit more though. The Japanese team began training on February 16th, nearly 3 weeks before their first game. The WBC is a much more serious event here than elsewhere, as shown by the 37,000 fans who watched their first training session in Miyazaki. The first televised game in the Classic, which Japan won 14-2, was watched by 37% of households in Japan. Make no mistake, this country takes immense pride in their team and they respond by training much harder than the other teams. And with the series taking place in March, after a long offseason, preparation is the key to winning - the Japanese made far fewer mistakes than their opposition and I think this is primarily due to their extended camp.

Furthermore, some people say that other countries don't send their best pitchers. This is true, but again shows just how important the WBC is to Japan. Everybody here wants to play for their country. But I'd like to add that Matsuzaka, Darvish, and Iwakuma make as strong a starting trio as any other country can offer. Roy Oswalt, the loser in the semifinal, is no slouch; he was simply outpitched by Matsuzaka, who repeated as the series MVP. In sports, injuries often rob a team of its stars; depth is critical to success and perhaps Japan is just as deep as the US or Cuba when it comes to needing 4 starting pitchers. Simply put, this is not an excuse, Japan earned their championships fair and square.

So why is Japanese baseball "boring"?

So Japanese baseball is now confirmed to be the best in the world. But the general feeling among many baseball fans living here is that the NPB game is not that exciting. I myself have agreed with this opinion for some time. When I first moved to Japan, I went to many games, at every stadium around the country, and watched plenty more on TV. I collected baseball cards and was quite knowledgeable about the game. But after a few years, my interest began to wane. Watching the WBC, I wondered how such well-played ball could have turned me off the game.

The first reason is game time. The American game is faster paced, averaging about 2:45, while Japanese games average about 3:15. Thirty minutes may not seem like a large difference, but considering baseball has very little action to begin with, that extra half-hour gives the impression of the game dragging on. Interestingly, the Japanese are trying to shorten their games as an ecological initiative! I don't know if it worked last year or not, but it's a positive step.

Secondly, American stadiums are much more pleasant, particularly those in the minor leagues. In Japan, we have too many domes (a necessity due to the rainy season that ruins much of the early summer here) and other stadiums are often old and have poor viewing conditions due to fences or other safety measures. To be fair, Fullcast Miyagi Stadium in Sendai, home to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, is a great, fan-oriented park. And Hiroshima is opening a new stadium in 2009, which I'll visit. So I'm hoping that things are changing for the better in this regard.

Another annoyance is the cheering section that populates the outfield seats in every stadium. Although I found them unique and entertaining early on, even sitting with them a few times at Jingu Stadium, they became tiresome after seeing so many games. Constantly spouting the same cheers in the same manner regardless of the circumstances or the score, the oendan seem to miss the point. I understand the need to belong, all fandom is based in some part on our desire to be part of a successful group, but baseball is a game that allows you to relax and enjoy the flow of the action; the rote recitation of a cheer when your team is down 14-0 in a spring training game seems to contradict the purpose of watching the game.

The domination of the Giants on TV was very frustrating, especially when broadcasts were cut off before the game ended. But the advent of cable has eliminated this concern. But on a related note, there are only 12 teams here, so we see plenty of the same matchups. Giants-Tigers, Dragons-Carp, Lions-Hawks, etc. There are not a lot of interesting battles. Interleague play has added some variety, but there are only so many games I can watch between two teams. (This problem is now taking place in MLB as well, with 19 interminable Red Sox-Yankee games each season.)

There are other minor criticisms. The extension of the season for rainout dates is silly, the season should finish with all teams playing on the same day. Six teams in the playoffs is too many. The overuse of the sacrifice bunt early in games, especially against a struggling pitcher, has always bothered me. The lack of a killer instinct in many pitchers, leading to way too many full counts, is one of the reasons games take so long. And tie games are no fun.

So we have an apparent contradiction. I like good baseball, Japan plays good baseball, but I don't like Japanese baseball. I think I've given several valid reasons on how this situation developed. But watching Samurai Japan over the past few weeks has given me a new appreciation for the way they play the game. I'm going to try to watch more games this year and see if things have improved for the fan such as myself. I'll keep you all posted, but in the meantime, let me know what you think!



Sunday, March 22, 2009

Japan 14, Korea 2 (7, World Baseball Classic) - March 7, 2009

After two difficult, sports-less months for me, the World Baseball Classic opened in Tokyo. Unfortunately, ridiculously high ticket prices prevented me from attending all the games, but on Saturday, March 7th a friend and I headed over to the Tokyo Dome to see if we could at least catch one game that day. There were two games scheduled, a 12:30 start between China and Chinese Taipei that would eliminate the loser, and then Japan would play Korea in the evening with the winner advancing to round 2. A single ticket would get you into both games.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, really the first day of spring. As we arrived at the Dome just after 1 pm, we saw that the ticket booth was showing the day's games to be sold out. This was not surprising; the Japanese team, nicknamed Samurai Japan, is very popular and a Saturday evening game against arch-rival Korea was sure to be a tough draw.

I was happy to buy a cheap ticket to Sunday's game, which would feature the winner of the afternoon game against the loser of the evening game. It would likely be Chinese Taipei vs Korea if things played out as expected. My friend though, was not interested in this battle - she is Japanese and wanted to see Japan play. So we sat in front of the dome, soaking up the rays and waiting for a scalper. However, in Japan, scalpers have become a rare breed. The police stand outside the stadium with signs warning people to avoid buying tickets from other individuals. After about 30 minutes, I saw a gentleman with two tickets in his hand. Having been to countless events, usually without a ticket in advance, I have developed a good sense for recognizing people with extra tickets.

We watched the guy for a while and it was clear he was trying to get rid of his seats, but he was not being aggressive, just walking around holding the pair of tickets in his hand. We noticed another person ask him something and, sure enough, he offered the tickets. We scurried over to hear the asking price - 6,500 yen each (about $65) which was face value. I quickly offered 10,000 yen for the pair and was rebuffed just as quickly.

The scalper returned to sit and wait, and I decided that I would rather get the cheaper ticket for the next day's game. But my friend had realized that this was a chance to see Samurai Japan, so she suggested we get those tickets. After all, they were face value, and not a rip-off. I went to talk to the scalper and saw that the seats were pretty decent, 3rd row in the upper deck above 3rd base. So I bought them and we headed into the dome to catch the end of the game between China and Chinese Taipei.

By now, the Chinese were leading 3-1 in the 6th inning, a bit of a surprise. The stadium was empty, with a small Taiwanese cheering section making the only noise.
The rest of the game was uneventful, with China adding a run on a solo shot by American-born Ray Chang to eliminate Chinese Taipei (can't call them Taiwan!) 4-1.

We had 3 hours between games, so we left the dome and wandered around looking for something to eat. I had earlier spotted a hamburger joint, so we made our way there to investigate the menu. The place is called "The Burgers Tokyo", a simple, yet accurate name. Their premium burger costs 780 yen, 980 yen with fries and a drink (you can even have a beer!). Unlike your typical fast food place, the burgers are made to order and take about 5 minutes to make. I heartily recommend this place if you are hankering for a decent burger before the next Tokyo Giants game.

Finally it was time for the main event. We returned to the Dome, and were surprised to find a long line waiting to get in. It was security check time! This included being wanded, so it took a few minutes to get back into the stadium. One of the interesting aspects of baseball in Japan is that you can bring in your own drinks and food. But due to the risk of throwing a can or bottle, you must give your drink to a staff member, who will pour it into a paper cup for you.

Once we had completed the necessary procedures, we returned to our seats to watch Japan finish up their batting practice. It was interesting to watch the stadium slowly fill up over the next hour, so that by 7 pm, nearly every seat was filled. There was also a small Korean cheering section in the outfield, led by 5 cheerleaders. The picture here does not do justice to them.

I don't want to recap the game here, but Japan won handily 14-2 in 7 innings as the game was called due to the mercy rule. I think that they should return 20% of the ticket price since we didn't get to see a full 9 innings, but the Japanese people around me were far too happy with their team's performance to quibble. Daisuke Matsusaka pitched well for Japan, overcoming an early monster home run by Korean power hitter Tae Kyun Kim.

For me, the highlight of the game was the "Race Around the World" promotion that took place on the big screen between innings. This was your typical race between 3 objects that was sponsored by some corporation or other. In this case, the objects were balls that were given colours. So we had the Red Ball, the Green Ball, and the Blue Ball. Yep, the Blue Ball. I found this quite amusing, as I am quite childish. The 3 balls race to all the countries that participate in the WBC, finishing in Japan. Naturally, the Blue Ball won, so it was a big moment for those sexually frustrated men.

All in all, it was a good day to start my 2009 sports viewing schedule. I'm glad I didn't go to the game the following day where Korea hammered China 14-0.

Next up is a trip from April 1st-13th, first to Arizona for some spring training baseball and then onto Denver for a smorgsabord of sports. I hope to have more interesting and timely updates going forward, so please stay tuned.



Saturday, March 21, 2009

Welcome to Sports Road Trips


Welcome to my blog on sports travel. This is the first of what I hope will be many posts detailing my sports road trips and other international sports stories.

Before I get started, some background might be useful. In 2001, I completed a 7-month journey to every major league baseball stadium, as well as several minor league ballparks, chronicling my adventures at www.mlbroadtrip.com. The site contained plenty of information on each city I visited, including attractions, restaurants, and trivia, as well as recaps of the games I saw and stadiums I visited. It was a lot of work updating it daily, and once the trip ended, I stopped adding to it on a regular basis, as my normal life is far too dull to share.

In the intervening 8 years, I've visited all the new major league stadiums and several other sports venues around the world. I usually put the game results on my site with a couple of pictures, but no otherwise useful information or advice for a fellow traveler. It was just a travel diary listing every sporting event I attended, but without the back story that makes travel so interesting. In other words, not a site you would visit a second time.

There were two main reasons for my lack of effort. Firstly, I didn't have a lot of spare time on my trips, partially because I had a job that took time even on vacations, and partially because I wanted to do as much as possible when I was on the road. Secondly, updating the site directly was difficult, primarily due to my poor design back in 2001. So I just updated the front page, and didn't write extensively about my experiences.

Well, both of those issues have been solved. I quit my job in mid-2008 (I consider myself semi-retired and hope eventually to make a living at this), and can now use this blog format to quickly post updates. So Sports Road Trips starts today!

What you can expect to find here

Trip reports - I have lots of trips coming up this year, and this will be the primary outlet for my experiences and advice. I'll be in Denver and Phoenix in early April for baseball opening day and some end of season hockey. July will send me to the two new stadiums in New York and a small road trip in New England. There's a short trip to Australia for some rugby in May, and then the International Junior Rugby Tournament in Japan in June. I also hope to visit Europe for some World Cup qualifying games in October. I'll be updating regularly during these trips, hoping to help fellow travelers plan their own adventures.

Trip ideas - The international sports schedule is filled with interesting events that most sports fans don't even know about. These events can serve as a starting point for a trip and I will post some less famous leagues or tournaments to perhaps start you thinking about a trip yourself.

Sports opinion - I'll also try to post some opinion pieces here - staying away from the ordinary and overhyped US sports scene, instead concentrating on some aspects of international sports. Living in Tokyo has opened my eyes to the incredible array of sports that is available around the world and I would like to make others aware that there is more to sports than just baseball and basketball!


The upcoming schedule is posted on this blog. It changes regularly, but if you are in the area and want to join me for a game, please let me know. I hope to make many new friends and reconnect with old ones as Sports Road Trips develops!