Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Chicken Soup for the Sports Fan

Bleachers' Brew #70 (from my Monday column in Business Mirror's sports section) August 20, 2007

Chicken Soup for Sports Fans
by rick olivares

Stop me if you’ve read this before. Of course you have… in my column two weeks ago and unfortunately, it’s like a recurring nightmare.

There’s Tim Donaghy in the news once more saying that he’s ready to spill the beans on other gambling and other erring referees. There’s doping in the World University Games, a competition supposedly for college students. There’s Noli Eala out as PBA Commish. There’s the terrible and atrocious officiating in the UAAP. And now there are allegations of steroid use in golf and game fixing in a tennis match involving world #4 Nikolay Davydenko and 87th-ranked Martin Arguello. Nikolay Davydenko! Tennis! Is nothing sacred anymore? Oh yeah, right. Didn’t we have cheating in chess recently as well? So I guess, I shouldn’t be surprised. Next you’ll tell me that there’s violence in ice skating. Oh yeah, I forgot -- there’s Tonya Harding.

You’ll have to pardon me if I’m officially tuning myself out of all bad sports news. One can only take so much. Where’s Gary Gnu when you need him? Remember, “No news is good Gnews?”

Sadly for every stirring triumph there are many other stories of corruption and scandals. But I guess one really does have to go through fire and hardship first before they triumph. The journey, after all, is everything.

While sifting through the box scores, match results, and print and online commentary that is part of my daily ritual, a couple of stories in the last few weeks and days have struck me and are stuck in my head like a song on my ipod. They’re not exactly of excessive sugary content that would make a diabetic jealous. They’re disturbing when you get right to the details, but at the end of it all, they offer hope, something that can never be in short supply in this crazy mad world we live in.

When the Iraqi national football team beat Saudi Arabia in the recent Asian Football Cup, I felt it was a most incredible feat. Imagine, for a team that practices collectively for only one hour a day because of security concerns, beating a well-heeled and moneyed Saudi team is more than a simple David and Goliath story. It’s redemption against all odds. It’s a ray of sunshine in a country that seems to have no hope. The Iraqis have no “name players” who ply their trade in fancied European clubs. Their captain Younis Mahmoud is the only one who sees action outside the country (as if playing in Qatar is deemed huge). They use their talent as a means to get out of their misery and to represent their country in spite of all the turmoil wrought by an ill-conceived invasion. And for all their exploits on the pitch (including placing second in the 2006 Doha Asian Games), the players can’t even fly back home lest they be murdered.

Football in Iraq is a horror story like no other. For two decades before Saddam Hussein was ousted, the Iraqi sports scene was the personal playground of the dictator’s evil son, Uday who tortured players, made them kick cement walls until their feet were bloodied stumps, and jailed them after losing matches. As Simon Freeman wrote in his book Baghdad FC, “I hoped to find heroes who wanted to save football in Iraq. But I found none. All who defied Uday were dead.”

When they made their spectacular run in the Athens Olympics, it showed the healing power of the sport in a war-torn country. Even with their victory in the Asian Cup, no rise in FIFA’s rankings (currently at #80) will assuage their fears and feelings. Not while their country is on the brink of total anarchy.

And speaking of anarchy, who would have thought that the grainy and wobbly footage of women about to be executed would spark a revolution both in their country’s government and in women’s sports? The clandestinely shot footage shows three Afghan women brought to a football stadium in Afghanistan and made to kneel along the penalty line. One by one they were shot and killed as the crowds cheered their Taliban assailants. The footage was smuggled out of the country and is one of the West’s few documented atrocities of the Taliban. It was used as a part of the BBC documentary titled Behind the Veil, a glimpse of the horror of the repressive Taliban regime before their ouster by American forces following the events of 9-11. It’s a heroic piece of reporting by Afghan-British correspondent Saira Shah who traveled undercover life in the post-Soviet pullout. It depicted the secret lives of women who fought the fundamentalist government by providing home education and cottage industries as a means of empowerment and fighting a government of monsters.

Now several years after the Taliban were overthrown, a part of the boon of that resistance that is the Afghan women’s football team will play their first ever football match against Pakistan in Islamabad. The team’s coach, Abdul Saboor Walizadah says that at first, the girls’ families didn’t want them playing football. Now they’re all comfortable with it. Their problem now is the lack of a venue for suitable training. The net effect on Afghan society is telling. Hundreds of women have now taken up a variety of sports including boxing and taekwondo not just for recreation but also for Olympic competition.

On the local front, a friend of mine, Ed Formoso, the PR Officer of the Philippine Football Federation, is engaged in Gawad Kalinga’s football program. Together with the Women’s National Team coach Marlon Maro, they go about organizing football seminars in GK Villages for kids. It’s an incredible sight to see these young boys in basketball sneakers and gear playing the beautiful game and enjoying it. These kids in turn become instructors in their own villages where they pass on their knowledge to their peers. I was able to talk to several of these young coaches and their thirst for knowledge about the game is great. Despite the lack of a domestic professional league that would surely boost the sport, the kids know one thing is for sure… the game is also about changing perceptions, opening opportunities, and if we’re all very lucky, healing the world. In a recent tournament against some of the top footballing schools in Metro Manila, the GK team made it to the finals where they lost in a penalty shoot out.

Faces in the crowd: Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Tony Romo as he tries to bring back a talented team back in the play-offs after his infamous fumble in last year’s post-season. Go, Tony!

For baseball fans, Actor John Turturro delivers a masterful performance as the late New York Yankees skipper Billy Martin in ESPN’s The Bronx Is Burning mini-series. It’s a behind the scenes look at a most fascinating year in New York that is 1977. The city was gripped in a myriad of events such as the hunt for the serial killer dubbed as the Son of Sam, a citywide blackout that resulted in arson and looting, a financial crisis that besieged Mayor Abe Beame, and there were the Yankees who gave the city a ray of hope. When I watch the footage dating from the previous 1976 play-offs where Chris Chambliss’ home run sent the Bronx Bombers into the World Series after more than a decade-long drought (where they ultimately fell to the Cincinnati Reds) all the way to that spectacular October 1977 where Reggie Jackson cemented his legacy, I get goose bumps. I was a kid then who was into the Philadelphia 76ers (who lost the NBA Finals to Portland), the New York Cosmos (who won the NASL title), and the Yankees (who won their 21st World Series) and it forever made me into a sports fan.

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