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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sweet Caroline - Neil Diamond

I managed to con some work mates to come with me down to the Fan Zone. What goes on around sporting events is important, how the area embraces the sport and what it makes of it. Birmingham is a Football town, with the Seals and Bluenoses dividing the city, unlike Leicester where both sports are equally as important, although rugby has enjoyed more success. Rugby does the stuff around a game very well, making a game an occasion.

The first time I saw a Fan Zone was at the France World Cup in 2007, on that fateful day when England didn’t come second – a wonderful birthday present. 36-0 and the alcohol in Stade de France was non-existent. Euro-fizz without taste, colour or alcohol. 3 pricey pints of it I drank as well. The Fan Zone alongside was fantastic though. Stade de France is in a very poor part of Paris, Sant Denis, reminding me of Wembley, a deprived area with an opulent sports arena. The area has a high Moroccan population, who probably have never seen a rugby ball before, and they run the local bars, and cafes. Many sporting events are sponsored by multi-national alcohol companies, for rugby, Heineken and Guinness, who often have an exclusion zone around the stadia. What France did was clever though. They worked with the local bars and cafes, and got them to have stalls within the Fan Zone as well as their bars and cafes, providing they sold Heineken and Guinness, at the approved prices. They made money form the event, rather than their bars lose out and they could sell food, which was quality ethnic food rather than the standard burgers and hotdogs that pass for edible at too many sporting events these days. French rugby is associated with Jazz Bands, and they had hired one to build the atmosphere. The opposition, South Africa contributed some Zulu dancers and there was a brilliant party atmosphere. My lasting memory, however, was the ragamuffin young boy, probably about 8, holding hands with his Arabic dad, wandering around soaking up the experience, with a huge smile on his face as he took it all in. His first experience of a World event, and the Fan Zone allowed him to take part, where there is no way he would have been able to take part otherwise.

In New Zealand, my first Fan Zone was a much sadder affair. A frosty foggy afternoon in Christchurch, 6 months after the devastating earthquake that took the World Cup away from them. Christchurch, the ’English City’ in the South, with its Cathedral in rubble, the city centre closed or operating out of converted shipping containers, and New Zealand’s spiritual home for rugby. All taken away from them. In true Immigrant ‘Can Do’ style though, the fan zone was open, with bars, food, exhibitions of cultural life and more importantly, their plans for re-building the city. It was a much more down beat experience, but it will rebuild itself.

So the next World Cup has arrived, and the earliest opportunity, we went down to the Fan Zone in Eastside Park. This is the regeneration project for Birmingham of this decade, the plans starting in my previous role, it has been interesting to see it unfold before me. I had been looking forward to this and the BIG kick off all week, how would Birmingham do it, what would it offer? The vision for the legacy of this World Cup is more people involved in the sport, whether than be playing, watching or volunteering at the local club. We had 1quite a walk to the Zone, but it was well laid out. There weren’t a lot of people there, mostly teachers and coaches to let the local school children try out the game in Tag form,  or to take the skills challenges – passing the ball through the holes etc. Pictures on TV will show Birmingham has a young and vibrant city and the setting certainly gave that feel, with modern buildings surrounding the park.  Unfortunately they were showing the England Scotland game from the last World Cup, in Auckland, where it was hard to believe just how bad England actually were, but still not quite as bad as Scotland, although it was close!

Food was a little limited, and slow service, but having said that, it was cooked to order. Fish, Chips and mushy peas (no faggots!) in the fresh air can’t be beaten, but a little disappointing that the variety of food was a little limited. The bar was empty, but the call to go back to work was stronger (really?!?) But it did give a great sense of expectation for later.

The toss up was whether to watch the game after work there or go home to watch it. The weather forecast tipped it towards my comfy sofa, although I intend to re-visit the Fan Zone before it closes. 

The excitement of watching the opening ceremony was tempered by the fact that we could see and hear the crowd in the background having a whale of a time signing Sweet Caroline, and we had to listen to John Inverdale, with his love in with Jonny and Sir Clive Woodward. I would think most of the global audience would have rather watched the build up in the stadium, rather than be reminded about 2003.

Fiji scored a stunning try, which was given, only to be pulled back before the conversion was taken for it to be checked. It was quite rightly cancelled out, but the so called experts protested that the try should have stood, and the referee got it wrong. The experts were wrong. Until the conversation is taken, the referee can change his mind. In this case for the right decision. 

Sport always throws up shocks, and despite Fiji playing the better rugby, their fitness levels fell off towards the end and the final result flattered a stuttering England, and the shock wasn't to be. The real shock was yet to come in Brighton, where little Japan, (in both rugby terms and physically) beat the mighty Boks. Rugby has become stodgy in recent years, too many Rugby League defence coaches, and South Africa are one of the best proponents of this rugby style, but they were outdone by a quicker Japan who attacked the space. Hurray for Japan, I hope that this wasn't their Cup Final, after losing 24 games in the World Cup on the bounce, and they win another game playing the same way. Rugby needs more of that style in this World Cup if it is to reach out to the likes of the little boy in Sant Denis.

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