The friendly match against the Great Britain Grandmasters was probably one of the most fun games I ever played. Remember, that the Grandmasters category was 40+ age. They had even one lady (Diane, if I remember right) playing on their team. There was a John who looked like the oldest player on their side. Had played ultimate for about 37 years I think! That's frigging older than anyone on our team. John was telling me that he's planning on coming to India to take part in the Auroville Hat tourney in 2012!
We agreed to play for 5 points, and then mix-up. And guess what? They beat us 5-4! Hehe, we weren't playing too hard or anything, but still! After that, we mixed up and had a lot of fun. The spirit huddle was also a lot of fun.
After the game, we all headed to the Arena for the finals. And oh man, was it a treat for everyone. The Masters was a little one-sided. But the mixed was super close. Germany almost beat the US.. but in the last second, US pulled through for a victory. This was the one game, where I thought that the US team wasn't the tallest! :-). The Open finals between the US and Philippines was mind blowingly athletic. The video will be up on Vimeo I heard. Everyone should watch it. I thought that the Phillipinos stood a great chance to win, but they made a couple of mistakes, and that came back to bite them.
It was interesting to watch the audience (mostly players from all other teams) support the opposition that the US teams played.. No one really supported the US teams on any occasion, except the Americans themselves. Now, I really like America as a country, have had the chance to live some really awesome years there, and the US players are all those we idolize and learn from online and videos. And the US team definitely played with the BEST spirit from what I've seen. The US open team especially I thought was EXCEPTIONAL (and I will mention an incident towards the end of this post which will give an example of how highly spirited they played). But, still, there was something impersonal about them, that made everyone (and maybe even me) support the opposition. One of the American players even came and spoke to us about it that morning, and was feeling a little sad that no one supported them. It was hard for them to understand why, but I think I sort of get it.
I have limited international exposure (Manila, Singapore, Malaysia) before this tournament, and hence am completely new to the whole Europe, US ultimate scene. But it seemed to me like the US squad came into the tournament with 2 disadvantages. 1, they were the favourites to win in most categories, and hence the big bad guy. 2, in general, there's a perception (which I heard through jokes, imitations or comments around in tents and sidelines) that the US players are full of themselves. This may/may-not be true, but in general, that's a perception of Americans as a bunch from all the European teams from what I could see.
The US squad themselves didn't do much to help their image. For instance, they pretty much hung out by themselves from what I saw.. atleast the younger teams in the squad. I don't think I ever saw a single US player hang out with any of the other teams (post game, or at parties, or at dinner / lunch tables). Also, personally, I thought that the spirit give-aways that they had for other teams, could've been thought through with a little more sensitivity. They had USA Ultimate caps, US flags wristbands, and I think some US flag temporary tattoos. Now, in a world tournament, why would you expect other teams (which are being super charged emotionally on their nationality, patriotism and flag), to wear someone elses flag? Especially given the perception that the US is considered to be full of themselves anyway and you probably just lost to them in the game. To put it in perspective, I'm not sure a Sockeye player would find it very easy to accept Revolver fan merchandise (to wear) in a spirit huddle, especially after being beaten by them. Most probably not, especially when you're breathing fire and feeling super patriotic about your club. This is that equivalent. And, no, it's not the same as exchanging a jersey with the opponent. That's mutual to a large extent. Also, it was nothing for the other teams to connect with. For example, Italy's spirit gift was simple, a small packet of spagetti, a red pepper, a single garlic, a mini bottle of Olive Oil and a small printout of cooking instructions, for us to get an essence of Italy. We gave out Lungis, a garland and Mango candy to give an essence of our culture. Ireland had this big fun bag which had some random fun objects like an odd shaped bottle opener, etc. All objects, which created a small but important connect with the team. Yes, it takes a wee bit of time, and a wee bit of effort, but it could go a long way. Sure, most people know a lot about the US than most other countries, but then there are so many things that outsiders don't know, until you actually live in the country. For example, I would've spent some time picking up some very small, but American artifacts. For example, a mini dream catcher, or a cowboy boot / hat fridge magnet, a dried cedar cone, etc and explained its significance or nativity in the US. Everyone of us wants to connect with something about the other team/nationality, and understand where they come from. In fact, you don't even have to give gifts, to create a connect with other teams. You could just do a super fun spirit game, and still create a connect. How would there be support, if there is no connect? The default connect is to the under-dogs! Which in this case was any non-US team.
Coming back to one of the example incidences I was talking about, I think it was the game between US and Belgium? or was it US and Spain, I forget. US player Brett Matzuka got a superb layout D on the opposition player. This was somewhere near the sidelines. The opposition player called a foul on the D, calling a body bump before the catch which caused him to drop the catch. Matzuka was furious, and got up in indignation. I think he was about to yell and contest the foul call, when Tyler Kinley (I think) who was standing just outside the sidelines just said "Brett.. Maybe".. and then he repeated "maybe". Matzuka took back the contest call, and the catch was deemed complete. This was just one such incident, where I thought the US was an example of exemplary spirited play.
Anyways, after the finals was over, and the prize distribution ceremony was going on, I was standing on the far side of the arena, with Mama, Abhi and Navin, hearing all the anthems being played n stuff. And they were giving out the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals. And then they were announcing the Spirit Awards, and we heard Patrick, the BULA head, say "this year, the most spirited team is a team which is appearing for the first time in the International Arena.. and they have come a long way, and played their hearts out. The most spirited team award goes to team India!". We couldn't believe our ears. Then pandemonium. We got down from the bleachers, and raaaaan all the way to the front. We couldn't believe it. We were so thrilled. We knew that at the end of Day 1, we led on spirit points, but this, we didn't expect. We didn't get any medals, but we didn't care. We were just happy to be recognized, and to stand on the podium with all those amazingly experienced team, who played some of the most amazing Ultimate I've ever seen. Team India, I loved playing with you. Indian Ultimate, we have a LONG LONG way to go in terms of game evolution, before we can have a chance to stand on the podium as game winners. But till then, we should atleast play to the best spirit, play fair, and play our heart out, giving every point our best, at every tournament. That may not seem very easy to do, when you're going down 13-0 in games, but nothing that is worth it, is easy. So what if you're down? Still go play with a lot of heart, and it will show.
Post the ceremony, when all the excitement has died down, somewhere deep down inside I wonder if they gave us the award to encourage us ('cause we'd lost all our games). One grand masters player came to Navin and congratulated him and said that he's been playing Ultimate for 31 years, and has tried hard, but has never won the Spirit award in any tournament so far. That put some things in perspective. Maybe it is this, maybe it's that. Maybe it's a mixture of both. But, I'm happy nevertheless. Team India, we have atleast set a good bar for ourselves to perform to next tournament. Play to the best spirits!
One more post to come. Learnings from the tournaments, and what we can / need to do better!
Labels: Travel, Ultimate Frisbee