MICHAEL CHURCH on the silence of Melbourne…golden showers in Jakarta…and a Chinese fan who cycled 2,000 kms to meet “him”
Have you ever worked in a profession other than football?
Yes, I worked as a lifeguard at my local swimming pool for much longer than I care to admit or remember during my teenage years back in my home town of Larne, in Northern Ireland. The sights seen back in those days still haunt me. Baywatch it most certainly was not.
Most memorable match?
There are a couple that stick out for very different reasons. The first, for many of the right reasons, is Australia v Iran at the MCG in Melbourne when the Iranians came back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 and qualify for the 1998 World Cup. The silence that descended on the MCG was eerie and witnessing the look on Terry Venables’ face in the post-match press conference was worth the trip Down Under in itself. Perhaps the best thing about attending that game is that I still have the opportunity to quieten down our Aussie friends by bringing it up on a regular basis. Those scars run very deep. The second was a match in a tournament called the Tiger Cup in Vietnam in 1998 when Thailand and Indonesia faced off in a group match that both were desperate to lose due to the ill-thought out scheduling and rules of the tournament. The game finished 3-2 to Thailand and the sight of the teams defending each other’s penalty areas was just odd, but not as bizarre as witnessing the gusto with which the Indonesians celebrated scoring the winning goal for Thailand. A very odd – and depressing – evening indeed.
The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winner at the Camp Nou on May 26, 1999. I was fortunate enough to be at the game and refuse, to this day, to watch anything other than the goals on TV as I want it to remain in my mind’s eye exactly how I experienced it. But that goal will live with me forever and I’d happily put it on a continuous loop.
The Allianz Arena in Munich’s a personal favourite when it comes to facilities etc. while the atmosphere at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran is only matched by that at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta. Both stadiums are crumbling dumps but when they’re full – with crowds in the region of 90,000 – there are few more intimidating or exciting places to watch football on the planet. Always best to keep your head down midway through the second-half in Jakarta as urine-filled bottles have been known to start raining down from the top tier by that stage…
…and the worst?
Nothing – not even Jakarta’s golden showers – surpasses The Showgrounds in Newry. Watching – if you could, given the amount of condensation on the windows – from a cold, wet, draughty press box with a long drive home to follow made it worse than unpleasant. After almost two decades of travelling around varying venues in Asia, nothing has yet come close. A character-building experience.
Your personal new-tech disaster?
Those usually centre around wifi and the inability to get access to a network as deadline approaches thanks to the photographers using up all the bandwidth. Have to admit, nothing major comes to mind on this. Perhaps I’ve been fortunate up until now.
Where to start? Getting the score wrong in a game because I was in a soundproofed press box (depressing enough in itself) and couldn’t hear when the referee blew the whistle to rule out a goal is right up there.The comments made in the press conference put everything into context and sent a very cold shiver down my spine. Fortunately, the guys uploading the story onto the website I was working for were slow to put the story online and a catastrophe was averted.
Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
Many moons ago in deepest darkest China I was walking through the lobby of the hotel I was staying in, which was the same hotel hosting the players from the Chinese champions of the time, Dalian Wanda. I was very quickly accosted by a Dalian fan who, it turned out, had cycled something like 2,000 kms to meet the players and support the team in that day’s match. For some reason, he thought I was one of the club’s Swedish imports and asked me to sign his shirt. I protested for a bit, telling him I wasn’t anyone famous until it became clear he wasn’t going to take no for answer. So, sheepishly, I signed the shirt only for someone to then tell the fan – finally – that I wasn’t who he thought I was. It’s fair to say he was none too chuffed.
Most media friendly manager?
When you’re away from the goldfish bowl of European football, it definitely gets easier to deal with managers. Philippe Troussier was fantastic during his days as Japan national team boss – couldn’t have been more helpful – and Bobby Houghton is an absolute gentleman, one of the nicest guys you could meet in any walk of life. But there are others, too. Bora Milutinovic is a gem. The sadly departed Tomislav Ivic was one of the most genuine people I ever had the pleasure to deal with and Milan Macala, who has worked across the Middle East, is a joy to work with. Former Notts County goalkeeper Raddy Avramovic is another, as is Jalal Talebi, who took Iran to the 1998 World Cup. I could go on as most managers I’ve dealt with have been helpful, which is what makes working in Asia so rewarding.
Best ever player?
I think it’s only fair to stick to the players I’ve seen in the flesh rather than waxing lyrical about highlight reels of George Best or Diego Maradona. Globally, the power and pace of the original Ronaldo always mesmerized me – pre-knee injuries he was an awe-inspiring sight when he was in full flow. It wasn’t hard to see why defenders feared him so much. The fact, too, that he managed to so successfully reinvent himself after his knee operations is a genuine sign of greatness. From an Asian perspective, the best player I’ve seen is Shinji Ono (Japan), who should have gone on to be a household name across the global game, but had an injury in his early 20’s that stopped him from fulfilling his true potential. Hidetoshi Nakata’s application and determination to succeed marked him out as well, especially at a time when he was breaking down barriers by going to Europe. Chinese striker Hao Haidong would have been a success in Europe, too, had the authorities allowed him to move when he was at his peak.
Best ever teams (club and international)?
Again, think it’s only right I stick with the teams I’ve seen in person and regularly via work. The best club side were the Jubilo Iwata team that won the Asian Club Championship in 1999, beating Esteghlal from Iran in the final with an all-Japanese starting line-up. National team is also Japanese, the one that Philippe Troussier took to success at the Asian Cup in Lebanon in 2000 – they were a fine side, although the current Japan team is of similar quality.
Best pre-match grub?
You guys in Europe are spoilt on this front. Pre-match food in Asia – if you’re lucky – is a cold bento box in Japan, but otherwise it’s whatever you pick up yourself at the local 7-11 around the corner from the stadium. The only events I’ve been to where that wasn’t the case were the Asian Cup in the UAE in 1996 and the most recent Asian Cup in Qatar in 2011. The food on offer there was great, I think. Or maybe I thought it was great because of the usual dearth of eating options at Asian venues.
Best meal had on your travels?
Hmmm, not sure as there’s so much great food in Asia. Although, funnily enough, the one that sticks in my mind isn’t Asian cuisine. There’s a very famous Brazilian churrasco restaurant in Tokyo I was taken to many years ago called Barbacoa – a venue beloved by Brazilians and the signed plates on the walls bearing the signatures of Zico, Ayrton Senna and the like proving the point – where the food is sensational. A bit pricey, but worth every penny.
…and the worst?
The chicken satay I had in Chiangmai in northern Thailand from a roadside vendor certainly made its presence known for longer and in a more colourful fashion than I appreciated.
One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
The Tour de France. I’ve been following it since I was a kid, but haven’t been yet. Despite all the scandals and nonsense over the last two decades, it still holds an immense amount of fascination for me – would love to follow on my bike for a few weeks, but am wary of becoming a lycra-groupie.
Last book read?
Seven Deadly Sins by David Walsh. A brilliant read, but a damning indictment on many within our profession. Also Boomerang by Michael Lewis. Having read that off the back of The Big Short, it has encouraged me to keep what little money I have under the mattress and out of the hands of anyone in the banking industry.
Favourite current TV programme?
Breaking Bad – brilliant concept, superbly put together with just enough humour among the grimness to stop you from descending into depression.
Your most prized football memorabilia?
I used to be a bit of sad git when it came to this, picking up all sorts on my travels: a Jubilo Iwata shirt signed by Dunga is a definite highlight or a ball signed by Pele. But nothing beats my ticket for the 1999 UEFA Champions League final signed by Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer. Still the greatest night of my life.
Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
Keep an open mind and look beyond the obvious to try to build a career – the world of football does not begin and end at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge or even Camp Nou. Football is one of the only truly global sports and the opportunities to learn so much about other countries and societies through the people you meet in the game are limitless. The standard won’t always be the best, but the access to players and managers and the fascinating stories that lie behind many of those involved will always make it worthwhile.
Michael Church has covered football across Asia for close to two decades, moving to the region in 1995 and has lived and worked in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. He was the Press Association’s Head of Sport for Asia for four years and writes for the South China Morning Post and World Soccer as well as serving as Managing Editor of AFC Quarterly, the Asian Football Confederation’s official magazine.
The Q&A’s world tour continues next week with leading Dutch football writer Marcel van der Kraan.