Monday, December 31, 2012

Fenerbahce Alkur Istanbul 78 at FC Barcelona Regal 100 (EuroLeague Top 16, Game 1) - December 28, 2012

When I planned the year-end trip to Europe, sports were not the priority as I would be making the trip with my girlfriend. Still, they weren't far from my mind. When choosing Barcelona as a destination, I knew that there would be no soccer while I would be there, but hoped that there might be a basketball game. Although the Spanish domestic league (ACB) would also be on a break, the EuroLeague was scheduled to begin its Top 16 on December 27th, which coincided perfectly with my visit. (For those who are not aware, the EuroLeague is basketball's equivalent of the Champions League, a competition where the best teams from countries across Europe play each other for the chance to call themselves continental champions.)

FC Barcelona may be most famous for Lionel Messi, but it is more than just a soccer team. They are a sports club with a basketball and handball team among other entities. Their hoops squad, named FC Barcelona Regal after a sponsor, is one of the best in Europe and had advanced from the EuroLeague regular season into the Top 16 without worry. If they were given a home date for round 1, I would be able to attend. As is often the case, the sporting gods smiled on me and a game was scheduled for Friday, December 28th, with Fenerbahce from Istanbul the visitors. So after another day of touring the city, my girlfriend and I made our way to Palau Blaugrana to add another country (18 in all now) to the list of nations in which I've attended a sporting event.

Palau Blaugrana

FC Barcelona Regal plays at the Palau Blaugrana, which has hosted basketball (and handball) for over 40 years. Blaugrana is the combination of the Catalan words for Blue and Deep Red, the world-famous colours of the soccer team. The Palau is dwarfed by neighbouring Camp Nou, the biggest soccer stadium in Europe, which lies just east. The entire complex is only five minutes from the Palau Reial metro station on L3, which is itself just a few stops from the major tourist areas, making the venue very easy to get to. As you walk down the hill from the metro station, you will notice immense Camp Nou to your left, but just in case you forget that soccer is first and foremost here, there are pictures to remind you.

The ticket window is clearly marked, but be sure to go to the right wicket as some are reserved for the soccer stadium tour, which attracts fans in its own right. The best thing about getting your tickets here is that the ducat has the FC Barcelona logo printed on it, making it far more colourful than what you normally get from TicketMaster. Being a ticket collector, I became very excited to see this. The ticket guy, sensing my anticipation, pulled the old "Here you go....psych!" trick by handing me the ticket and then pulling it back as I reached for it. He actually did this several times, much to my girlfriend's amusement. Yes, I felt very childish at that time.

Anyway, we walked around the stadium but there wasn't much to see. We entered by the door on our gate and stopped to have a look at the domed roof (above) which was quite impressive. We then made our way to our seats, which were a bit confusing as they are not consecutively numbered. Odd-numbered seats are on the left of the aisle, while even-numbered seats on are the right. Moreover, there is no aisle between the even and odd seats in different sections. For example, section 110 ends with seats 20 and 22 next to each other. Section 109, seat 23 was then the next one over, and there is no aisle between them. It isn't rocket science, but be aware of this if buying tickets online.

One cool thing is that there are a few yellow seats that spell FCB on one side and we happened to be sitting in these, just 2 rows from the court. At 53 Euros, they aren't cheap, but certainly much more affordable than similar NBA seats.

While the players warmed up, I did my usual walk around. The first thing I noticed is that some lower-level corner seats have an obstructed view, as do those at the end.

I would suggest the upper-level corner seats are the best value at just 19 Euros but be careful not to sit with the supporters, who are loud throughout the game. In fact, what was perhaps most surprising was that there were two distinct groups of supporters.

As best I can tell, they are differentiated by their feelings toward Catalan independence. Barcelona is in the Spanish area known as Catalonia, which has a strong separatist movement that has been active for decades. Catalonia has its own flag and those fans who push for their own nation wore the yellow and red from that standard, while the other group sported the blue and deep red of FC Barcelona. Putting politics aside, having two diverse yet loud groups of fans supporting the home team was a unique experience and really added to the atmosphere.

One nice touch was a number of electronically displayed retired jerseys along the top of one wall, including those from the handball club (above).

I followed the above sign and escaped to the bar, only to be disappointed that the beer on offer was of the non-alcohol variety. Instead I had a foot-long hot dog that was less appealing by the bite. Avoid the food here if you can.

Overall, FC Barcelona Regal may be the lesser-known team when compared to their world famous soccer brethren but that doesn't mean that they should be ignored. The quality of basketball is high - former players include Pau and Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, and Anderson Varejao among others - and tickets are easy to get. If you happen to be in Barcelona during the long basketball season, check out the FC Barcelona Regal home page to see if there is a game while you are in town. There has been talk of building a larger facility which would be a shame as this place is perfect for basketball; let's hope that wiser minds prevail and this place remains an excellent stadium destination for years to come.

The Game

This was the first round of the Top 16 of the EuroLeague, so I had high hopes with the visitors from Istanbul also considered a good team. During warmups, while I did my tour, my girlfriend observed that Barcelona was shooting much better. I assured here that meant nothing, but it turned out she was spot on. Barcelona, who were on a 4-game losing streak, came out gunning and used some sharp shooting to take an early 17-6 lead, which they cemented into a 24-13 advantage by the end of the first quarter (periods in Europe are just 10 minutes long).

David Andersen scores for Fenerbahce

I expected the Turks to fight back, but they were not up to the task. Barcelona continued to shoot lights out, taking a 54-35 lead into half time, with one-time Raptor Nathan Jawai (below) a noticeable star behind two monster dunks.

The second half was merely window dressing, and by the end of things, the only question was whether Barcelona could reach 100 points, a rare achievement in European basketball. When Marcelinho Huertas sank a shot with less than a minute to go, the century mark had been reached. The final was 100-78, a surprisingly one-sided affair that did not temper the fans' enthusiasm one bit.

Barcelona was simply too good, spreading their scoring evenly among the top players. As you can see above, Huertas and former Grizzly Juan Carlos Navarro led with 14, but the rest of the team helped out with all 12 players contributing. Ante Tomic, dunking below, was the MVP with 12 points, 11 boards, 5 assists and only 1 turnover.  Update: Note #14 above - that's Marko Todorovic, who played just 2 minutes, but was memorable for his youth and size. He was drafted 45th overall by Portland in the 2013 NBA draft. Update: he never made the NBA,

The game was less than 2 hours long, perhaps one of the quickest sporting events I have attended. Although the result wasn't close, it was great to see quality basketball from such a vantage point - many of these players could play in the NBA, although probably only as bench players. Still, the team concept was apparent here with more passing and less wasted possessions due to poor shot selection. It would be very interesting to see a 7-game series between the EuroLeague and NBA champions - I think it would be closer than many basketball fans would expect.



Monday, December 24, 2012

NEC Nimjegen 0 at ADO Den Haag 2 (Eredivisie) - December 22, 2012

The Dutch Eredivisie is the poor man among Europe's elite soccer leagues despite the Netherlands making it all the way to the World Cup final back in 2010. Most soccer fans recognize the team names from the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga, but few would be able to name more than Ajax, Feyernoord, and PSV when discussing the Eredivisie. I'm no better myself, so when Amsterdam was decided as one of the destinations for my year-end trip, I had to check out the list of cities with teams in the Eredivisie to see if I could catch a game while I was there.

I arrived in Amsterdam on December 21st which began the final weekend of the first half of the season. With 18 teams in the league, there were 9 teams at home over the three days of action. Ajax Amsterdam was out of town, so I was forced to choose from Alkmaar (Friday night), Den Haag (Saturday night), and Utrecht (Sunday afternoon), all about 45 minutes from the Dutch capital. I decided in the end to visit Den Haag (The Hague) as there was an interesting exhibition at one of the museums and the game was at night, which allowed for a full day of sightseeing. So after the morning in Amsterdam, I boarded the Sprinter train to Den Haag and enjoyed the afternoon at the Gemeentemuseum before heading over to Kyocera Stadion, home of ADO Den Haag.

Kyocera Stadion

Like most European soccer venues, Kyocera Stadion is located outside of the city centre. Both the metro and the Randstadrail get you there, with Forepark being the closest station, about a 10-minute walk. It was raining heavily the day I went, so I did not do my usual tour outside the ground, instead choosing to get a ticket and hurry inside. While I was looking for the correct gate to enter, I did notice a statue of Aad Mansveld, a Den Haag legend who passed away at 47 back in 1991.

The ticket window was clearly marked and I asked for a seat in the Haaglanden Tribune. At 31.50 Euro, this was not a cheap ticket but I just wanted to get inside and out of the rain. It took me a couple of minutes to reach what I thought was the right entrance. I was let in through the Happy Crowd Control security gate and quickly realized that I was nowhere near my ticketed section. Thanks to my incredible comprehension of Dutch (i.e. showing my ticket to ushers with a blank look on my face), I was guided to the right area, even having thick plastic doors that usually separate the visiting fans from the locals opened for me and me alone. I told them I was English though, so no embarrassment for the home nation.

When I reached section K, I was happy to see that it was general admission and there were still plenty of empty seats, no doubt due to the weather and the time of year. The stadium holds 15,000 but only 11,000 hardy Den Haag supporters showed up on this night.

The symbol of the team is a stork, and there is a mascot (below) who walks around before the game. No babies in the beak though.

There were a few concession windows but I had just eaten a nice dinner at a local establishment and was not willing to try a hot dog. Beer was plentiful though, but even then the biggest cup was just 350 ml for 3.5 Euro, not enough to quench one's thirst.

There isn't much else to discuss here. I was in section K, separated from the real fans by a plastic wall. There really wasn't any troublemaking though, the visiting fans were at the other end of the stadium and frankly, the fans didn't see any reason to start a fight just a few days before Christmas.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was halftime when the cheerleaders ran out onto the field wearing white Christmas outfits. They proceeded to dance to Christmas carols as they moved around the stadium. Most fans missed the display as they were getting beer, but as an intrepid sports road tripper, I stayed in my seat to take pictures and enjoy the show. Statuesque Dutch women wearing white in a freezing rainstorm - isn't that what sports is all about?

Overall, Kyocera Stadion is what you would expect from a mid-range team in the Netherlands. A functional venue that offers little beyond the basics. European soccer suffers from hooliganism, even in lesser known places, so often stadiums are designed to minimize trouble rather than maximize fan enjoyment. I'd say Kyocera Stadion is one of these places, worth a visit if you are in the area but go there with no expectations lest you be disappointed.

The Game

It was raining from well before game time so the pitch was waterlogged by kick off. That didn't stop the home team from attacking early and they put one in the net just 5 minutes in when Rydell Poepon appeared to head one in off a corner kick. However, the ref said the ball went in off his hand (above) and the match remained scoreless. N.E.C. took a yellow card on the 18th minute and just four minutes later were handed a straight red when Kevin Conboy went in to a tackle with spikes up. Down to 10 men, the visitors went to a defensive posture but were quickly beaten when Jens Toornstra took a perfect through pass from Vito Wormgoor and slotted home in the 33rd minute for the only goal of the first half.

The second stanza began with N.E.C. attacking and winning some free kicks (above) but keeper Gino Coutinho (below) was equal to any challenge.

With just 5 minutes left, ADO brought forth another attack. Charlton Vicento was fouled but the referee played advantage and the ball fell to Aaron Meijers who croosed to Toornstra who made no mistake in finding the open net. That was all she wrote as ADO Den Haag won 2-0 in a reasonably interesting affair. Highlights are here.


With the loss, N.E.C. became Satan's team with a 6-6-6 record. ADO Den Haag is just a point behind with a much less symbolic 5-8-5 mark. Both teams are currently in the Europa League playoffs but with 16 games left, anything can happen.

Toornstra is rumoured to be heading to Swansea in the EPL in the upcoming transfer window. Will be interesting to see how he does there should he make the move.

Next Up

I'm off to Barcelona for the next few days and the EuroLeague basketball tournament begins their Top 16 while I am there. Still trying to secure a ticket as their online system is rather useless for out-of-Europe credit cards. Check back in a few days to see if I made it.

Until then, Happy Holidays everyone!


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

2013 Sports Road Trips Schedule Released

It is almost 2013 and that means it's time for next year's schedule to be released. Obviously it is a work in progress, as I'm always making changes based on flight prices, ticket prices at the events, business trips, and angry girlfriends.

The first thing to note is the Asean Basketball League, a circuit with just six teams including one in Singapore. I'll be checking them out a couple of times and also hoping to get to at least two other venues on the road, including Jakarta, a city I have yet to visit.

The only big journey planned is the Texas Triangle Trip in mid February. It has changed a bit from when it was originally posted. In particular, I will be leaving a few days earlier and seeing the Mavericks hosting the Atlanta Hawks on Feburary 11th before zooming over to Memphis for the Vancouver Grizzlies as well as the NCAA's Tigers. The rest of the trip will be mostly the same until the 24th, when I must fly out of Dallas early thus missing the Lakers visit, but I should be able to catch the Sixers and Knicks at MSG. I plan to knock six NBA venues off of my Quest for 400, leaving San Antonio (who are out of town due to the rodeo) and Indianapolis as the only two cities where I've yet to watch an NBA game.

Here's the final schedule for that trip:

Feb 11 Atlanta Hawks at Dallas Mavericks 7:30
Feb 12 Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies 7:00
Feb 13 UCF Knights at Memphis Tigers 7:00
Feb 14 Miami Heat at Oklahoma City Thunder 7:00 (NBA finals rematch)
Feb 15 Oklahoma City Barons at Texas Stars (AHL) 7:30
Feb 16 Sacramento State at Texas (NCAA Baseball) 2:00
Feb 17 UIC at Texas A&M (NCAA Baseball) 1:00
Feb 17 NBA All Star Game at Houston 7:00
Feb 18 Central Baptist Mustangs at New Orleans Privateers (NCAA Basketball) 7:00
Feb 19 Chicago Bulls at New Orleans Hornets 7:00
Feb 20 Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets 7:00
Feb 21 Florida Atlantic Owls at North Texas Mean Green (NCAA Basketball) 7:00
Feb 22 Wichita Thunder at Allen Americans 7:05
Feb 23 Cal State Fullerton Titans at TCU Horned Frogs (NCAA Baseball) 2:00
Feb 23 Texas Strikers at Dallas Sidekicks (PASL) 7:00
Feb 24 Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks 7:00
Feb 27 Golden State Warriors at New York Knicks 7:30
Mar 01 Dallas Mavericks at Brooklyn Nets 8:00

I'll be making a trip to Osaka in August to review the three remaining NPB ballparks for Stadium Journey.  The F1 also provides some exciting trip opportunities. I have already bought my tickets for the Malaysia Grand Prix, but am planning a trip to Abu Dhabi in November as well. Even Shanghai is an option although unlikely so it is not included yet.

Next year probably won't be as prolific as 2012, where I saw 90 games in 9 countries and added 51 new venues to my venue count, which now stands at 395 (all numbers after my upcoming Europe trip). But when last year began, I had no idea I'd be living in Singapore when it ended, so who knows what 2013 will bring. Hope you all enjoy following along!



Saturday, December 15, 2012

Off to Europe - 2 more games to end the year

The year-end holidays are upon us, which means a couple of weeks off work and a chance to visit some new places and perhaps see some new sports. With flights back to North America costing so much, I figured I'd relax at a resort in Asia, but having spent the last six months here, I decided that perhaps Europe would make a better destination. Using my favourite flight finder, I tried a number of major cities in western Europe and found a surprisingly cheap flight to Amsterdam leaving December 20th and returning January 2nd on Malaysia Airlines. It is unusual to get promotional prices during the Christmas holiday, but I suppose few tourists want to leave the balmy climes of southeast Asia for the chilly Netherlands. I have no problem with that and quickly made the booking.

The next step was to figure out where else to visit while in Europe. Barcelona and Brussels came up as convenient and affordable destinations that I've yet to see, so I booked a couple of one-way flights and the schedule was set. Now I had to find a sports match or two to include.

With this being the year-end holiday, there isn't a lot of sport to see as most soccer leagues rest over the final weekend of the year. By arriving on the 20th though, I get to see action on the penultimate weekend, when the main Dutch soccer circuit, the Eredivisie, is in action. Ajax Amsterdam is out of town, but there are several nearby towns hosting a match. The most interesting city among these is The Hague, so I'll head there next Saturday to see ADO Den Haag host N.E.C. of Nijmegen at Kyocera Stadion. The town is easily worth a day trip and with the game in the evening, the afternoon can be spent at the various museums and other attractions.

Barcelona proved to be slightly more troublesome to easily find sports as La Liga is taking their break while I am there. Fortunately, the FC Barclelona sports club has a basketball team, although their domestic home schedule saw no games while I am to be there. However, they are involved in the continental competition, known as the EuroLeague, which is the basketball equivalent of soccer's Champions League.

Twenty-four teams contest the regular season, playing in four groups for a home-and-away round robin. The top four from each group move on to the Top 16, which sees two groups of eight engage in another round robin. The top four advance to the best-of-five quarterfinals, with the winners meeting in a Final Four in London in May, 2013. The regular season finished yesterday and Barcelona topped their group. I knew that the first round of Top 16 games would be played while I am in Barcelona, but I wasn't sure if they would be at home during that round. Thankfully the league immediately announced the Top 16 schedule, and the sporting gods smiled upon me again as FC Barcelona hosts a game on December 27th, against Fenerbahce from Istanbul. That will provide a nice ending to a great year of sports travel.

Next year promises to be just as exciting for me, with the Texas Triangle Trip to get things started in early February. As always, check back for regular updates. Happy Holidays everyone!



Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Merry Christmas NHL Fans!

So the NHL has cancelled all games up to December 30th. For NHL fans, Santa Bettman and his merry band of elves continue to be the Grinches who steal another season. One sticking point is the contract limit. Owners are set on a 5-year maximum, players naturally want more. Funny thing is just before the lockout, players were signing outrageous contracts, including the Wild giving Ryan Suter and Zach Parise 13-year deals. I guess the owners expect the players to protect them from their own stupidity. Meanwhile, the prospects of a season dwindle quickly. Oh well, the Leafs are still in first at least.

Enjoy the coal in your stockings NHL fans. See you in 2014!



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Guns, Forks and Freedom

The NFL suffered a terrible tragedy this past weekend when Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins before driving to Arrowhead Stadium where he turned the gun on himself. The incident prompted Bob Costas to speak out during halftime of Sunday Night Football, where he quoted Jason Whitlock, a Kansas City-based writer who had written an article for Fox Sports advocating the postponement of that Sunday’s game between the Panthers and Chiefs. The sentence that Costas quoted and caused the most controversy stated that “If Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today”. This statement may be true, but we will never know for sure. Regardless, gun advocates wasted no time in calling for Costas to be fired. Why is it that supporters of the second amendment are the quickest to deny others their first amendment rights?

It is not surprising that they are unable to see their own hypocrisy given how idiotic their rationale is. Perhaps the stupidest argument regularly made by certain gun lobbyists is the one that equates guns and murder to forks and obesity. Of course! Not everyone with a gun is a murderer, just like not everyone with a fork is fat. This is a specious argument. There are three big differences between guns and cutlery.

1. If I have a fork, I will make myself fat. If I have a gun, I will make you dead.
2. If I have a fork, it will take me a very long time to make myself fat. If I have a gun, I will make you dead very quickly.
3. If I get fat, I can lose weight with my fork. If you get dead, my gun will not bring you back to life.

I understand America’s desire for a gun culture; the country formed through war and in the 1800s, there were legitimate concerns about safety from foreign invaders. But times have changed. Nowadays, there is no need for the average man to own a gun. Instead of self-protection, guns are used to end arguments, commit felonies, or shoot an unarmed intruder that happens to be your son (the fact that this happened twice within two weeks is damning enough).

Of course there are situations where having a gun is helpful (there were 204 justifiable homicides committed by citizens with firearms in the US in 2008), but far more often the result is tragedy (9,484 firearm murders that same year). People say that if they own a gun, they will be responsible, but there are stories every day about those that forget that promise in a fit of anger or jealousy.

I’d be happy to listen to some intelligent discussion from the gun lobby, but I’ve yet to hear a single cogent argument against gun control. Perhaps their inability to formulate such a position is the reason they avoid entering a meaningful national debate. Instead, they are happy for their nation to continue to see innocents gunned down for no particular reason, while society as a whole becomes increasingly numb to murder. Very soon, America's only remaining freedom will be freedom from conscience.



Sunday, December 2, 2012

Baseball Writers Ignoring Steroid Users (Again)

The 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is out and it is the first one with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa listed. Of course, those are three of the biggest steroid users with both Bonds and Clemens having gone through lengthy legal proceedings in failed efforts to clear their names. Since they retired, there has been mounting speculation that members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) will choose not to vote for anybody associated with the scandal in a misguided attempt at making themselves newsworthy.

Sure enough, the past few days have seen many writers openly declaring that they will not vote for Clemens, Bonds, Sosa, or any other cheater. So self-righteous! My question to them is "Where were you when this was going on?"

It didn't take a genius to notice that Barry Bonds' head had swollen to the size of a pumpkin. When Sosa and Mark McGwire were racing to beat Roger Maris' single season home run record in 1998, there were questions about just how they were doing it but no serious investigation was performed by anyone in the media. There were some lame attempts at saying the baseballs were juiced but I cannot recall any of the BBWAA members bothering to do the hard work that a full investigation would require. Instead they were complicit as MLB allowed their players to bulk up in order to make baseball more interesting as it tried to recover from the 1994 strike. This is not some crackpot conspiracy theory; there is no doubt that GMs, managers, and people in the commissioners office knew what was going on. They chose to ignore it as fans were excited by the offensive explosion and were returning to ballparks in droves.

Fifteen years later, the narrative has changed. Steroid users are cheaters and must now be punished. Leave it to the BBWAA to volunteer to mete out the punishment the best way they know how: lazily. Why bother to think about your own involvement in the scandal when you can loudly state that you will not vote for anyone associated with it and get your name in the papers without even writing a story.

To be fair, not all members of the BBWAA should be painted with the same brush. Some have written deliberate articles about how difficult the voting has become and how they are conflicted. Personally, I cannot understand how this issue can cause so much soul-searching. Either you consider the steroid era to be valid (as MLB does), or you don't and you vote accordingly. Given that baseball spent about sixty years being segregated, during which many famous records were set, I'd say the furor over PEDs is extremely overstated. Furthermore, cheating has always been in baseball. Gaylord Perry has a plaque in Cooperstown despite being a known spitballer. You may believe that the evils of steroids are much worse than some saliva on a baseball, but cheating is cheating. As Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle states in an ESPN article  "The Hall of Fame's 'character' clause should be stricken immediately, because it's far too late to turn Cooperstown into a church".

Baseball writers will try their best to do so though, starting with this year's vote. It is just too bad they didn't try their best when the steroid users were staring them right in the face.