Central Coast Mariners celebrity fan, George Negus, penned this exclusive blog for ccmariners.com.au from his hotel room in Tianjin, China, where he recently travelled to support the team in their first AFC Champions League match of 2012.
If you do what I normally do, for me to be overseas for the fun of football, felt a bit like a schoolkid ducking classes.
But over the past few days, folks, I-ve had a ball - a foot-ball actually - travelling with a great bunch of seriously diehard Mariners- fans in, of all unlikely places, China. We were there, needless to say, to watch our boys in yellow and navy play their first match in the AFC Champions League. And not even the odd “squatty grotty” and a thankfully injury-free freeway prang could dampen our enthusiasm.
I know we football tragics keep haranguing the sceptics that our round-ball phenomenon is the only truly world game - but, we don-t “rev up” that massive wrap without damned good reason.
Think about this particular match! The Mariners from the New South Wales Central Coast versus Tianjin Teda from China is not exactly a local derby! No disrespect to our arch-rivals from the Newcastle Jets, but thanks to the AFC Champions League, that-s like Gosford taking on the world - or at least world football. We-ve always said that the Qantas Socceroos are our entry card to the rest of the world. Well, these days, via the AFC Champions League, so is the Hyundai A-League.
I-m actually tapping out these football-crazed thoughts in my hotel room in Tianjin, Teda-s home city. For those of you who mightn-t know, it-s a bit off China-s beaten track, about 120 kilometres from Beijing, the capital and, of course, host of the 2008 Olympics. It-s got a population of about 12-million. That makes it more than twice as big as Sydney, the Central Coast, Newcastle and the Hunter all banged together. It-s got a long traditional Chinese history, but, in the booming new China of the 21st Century, Tianjin-s an important industrial and trading hub.
As I tap away, I-m gazing out of my window through a pretty dismal, grey, soupy, sleety winter smog. Not exactly a picture-postcard view.
Feet up and looking forward to the next day-s game, I-m taking in a mad mix of the old-new China - east-west, part-communist, part-capitalist, a country with a politically grubby past, a “face-lifted” present and a power-packed future. Remember the old communist China of Chairman Mao and the Red Guards? You might even recall the nasty “yellow fever” we all feared? “Reds under the bed” and all that! Well, whether we like it or not, that-s the same vast nation of 1.3-billion, or a total remake of it, we are learning to live and play with -- the world-s soon-to-be super-power. But, they-ve still got a hell of a long way to go before they become what we Australians would call a democracy.
Meanwhile, their national football team is not exactly setting the international football world alight. Whatever else it is, the new China is definitely no soccer super-power -- but it is football-mad!
That said, ten years ago, our mighty Mariners weren-t even playing in the Hyundai A-League. In fact, there was no A-League! But, that evening, there we were -- part of the game-s new world order, in the Champos, in China, at a chatty “meet-and-greet” after training with Wilko, Patrick, Matty, Bernie, Hutch, Ollie, Bernie, Musty, Michael, Kwaz, Pedj, Josh, Danny, Troy, Jason and -- I guess they had to come too, just for the experience - Arnie, Phil, Clarky and JC.
On Wednesday, game night, the boys strode out of the tunnel, looking quietly confident as they always do. But, onto a slippery, frozen pitch in a zero-cold, Mariners- unfriendly stadium packed with 20,000 screaming Tianjin fans, about to take on a completely unfamiliar, mysterious opponent! This was not our comfort zone! How the heck could our lot -- 40-odd shivering Mariner “tragics” --possibly make ourselves heard over the local cacophony? We could only try - and we did!
At least we got their attention. But, the boys did much better at contending with the Tianjin XI than we did the Tianjin 20,000! In fact, they kept their shape and their cool (how could they not in those chilly Chinese winter conditions?) for the entire 90-plus minutes and were always in with a real chance of winning.
You could say it was a bloody long way to come for a 0-0 result! But, that big away win we were after aside, there was no doubt we were spectators at a “world game,” up close and personal - both on and off the field.
As I was going on about earlier, think about it: a mild-mannered mob from Gosford, a dot on the coast of Australia, half a hemisphere away, taking on Tianjin, a serious cog in the wheel of arguably the most populous and powerful nations on the planet -- a “mis-match” not to be missed!!
Can we get the better of them at Central Coast Stadium in May? Course we can! Next time, we-ll be the ones making all the noise...