Friday, 18 June 2010

World Cup: Improvements

The Rubbish Trumpet World Cup 2010 is gathering momentum: just when it seemed the entire tournament would lifelessly vanish in a droning blaze of goalless draws and perfectly spherical balls shooting vertically into the high altitude ionosphere, all of a sudden the football playing representatives of the various nations have become reanimated and started to entertain. In today's game featuring Mexico ripping out the wane heart of France there was even the astonishing novelty of hearing the sound of singing: above the sound of a billion bees came the sound of Mexican triumph, victory over the French and trumpet bearers together in the simple yet so relieving sound of celebratory chants from human voices.

The trumpets were also silenced yesterday, when the host nation were soundly thrashed 3-0 by a farming nation smaller than Moldova and condemning them, almost certainly, to being the first host nation to be elimated before the second round. I know I shouldn't take such smirking delight at such a fact, and I have nothing against the badly named country in itself ("South Africa" is a description of a location, not a name, much in the way that the "Central African Republic" is a description of a country and its political system rather than a proper name for a nation. For the record, I would name them "Gun Trumpet" and "Superland" respectively), but for their efforts in reducing all crowd noise from the varied joys of the sound of thirty-two nations' unique support to the constant steady menace of approaching insects I feel they deserve a swift booting from the tournament. Mind you, FIFA deserve a bit of a slap too for standing idly by. I've decided not to call them FIFA anyway, as the acronym is French, and so from now on I'm going with the English version, IFAF (or, for the pedant, IFoAF).

But controversies within a World Cup are part of the fun. I've accepted all remaining games will be soundtracked by a ghastly buzzing and don't really mind, just as long as this unique part of South Africa's apparent culture doesn't stray beyond the tournament; I also clearly enjoying moaning about it as much as possible. I'm enjoying this new football, widely accused of being too round and having a mind of its own, and thus responsible for every bad kick or goalkeeping fluff. I'm mightily impressed by IFAF throwing out thirty pretty girls from a stadium because they were wearing orange and therefore promoting an unoffical brewery - the consequences, of course, being days of news and coverage for the unofficial brewery. And most of all, I'm loving the fact that Maradona is back, as de facto Argentina coach, and looking meaner than ever. Snappily dressed and with a gangster beard, he struts about the touchline, flicks stray balls to players with occasional fancy flourishes, and gives brilliant press conferences where he says stuff like: "[Pele should] go back to the museum", "We all know how the French are", and (after kissing and hugging his payers upon a 4-1 victory) "I still prefer women. I am dating Veronica, who is blonde and 31 years old." Oh, Maradona.

So, things are getting better and I hope I read the signs correctly that indicate a promising World Cup ahead. However, like most things, improvements can always be made. The quality of the football is a matter for the teams and although integral to the enjoyment of the tournament is mostly beyond IFAF's (oh, ok, I'll call them FIFA) control except for tweaking certain rules and introducing comedy joke footballs; however, FIFA can deal with logistical issues and make general tournament-wide innovations that can have a positive impact for the crowds and the TV viewers. So if I was the entire organisation of FIFA, this is what I'd do (in no particular order, except for number one).

1. Ban stupid plastic trumpets. Obviously.

2. Change the way tickets are sold from the second round onwards. This is from personal experience, going to two games in Germany 2006. One was a first round game between Korea and Switzerland and had an amazing atmosphere, perhaps the best I've ever witnessed. Why? Because it was full of Korean and Swiss fans who had bought their ticket in advance, knowing their teams would be playing. But the second game I saw was a second round game between Ukraine and Switzerland. And it was terrible. Not just the dire football, but the total lack of atmosphere. This was because when I - and most others there - had bought the tickets, it had just been a second round match gamble, and most people had calculated either Spain or France being one of the teams. Therefore, the crowd was full of French, Spanish and mostly curious Germans, and had a minority of Swiss or Ukranians. During the day we saw loads of French and Spanish trying to sell their unwanted tickets. So the stadium was full of people who didn't really care - not conducive to an electric game of football. I suspect this is the case, to varying degrees, for most later games. I'm not sure exactly how it could be done, but FIFA need to try and ensure the tickets aren't sold way in advance to random punters (like myself and the curious Germans) but hold back, say, two thirds until they know which teams are playing. If a country can't fill their third, then sell it to the opposition or the host nation fans. Anything that maintains the good atmosphere of the first round onto the later rounds.

3. Don't book players for taking their tops off during celebrations. Come on, FIFA, what's this all about? It's not as if they're revealing their erect ejaculating penises.

4. Ban players retroactively for diving in the box. This isn't my idea, it's derived from an idea by Justin, but video evidence should be used after games and if a player has blatantly dived in the box - whether leading to a penalty or not - they should be banned from the rest of the tournament. I'm not suggesting changing the game's result, just stamping out diving players. Because it's sickening when a game is decided by cheating.

5. Don't ban players from playing in the final just because they've picked up two yellow cards. A red card in the semi-finals, ok, fair enough, if it was something really cynical at least. But the final is meant to be a showcase between the two best footballing nations on the planet, and to have that game minus one, two, three or whatever of the best players in the world, just because of some earlier minor indiscretions, undermines the game.

6. Have the women's World Cup on simultaneously, in the same country. I'm serious. Nobody really gives a damn about the women's World Cup - especially women - but if it was to be held in the same country at the same time, then I believe it would generate a lot more interest. If the games were held in the morning, or at a time not clashing with the men's games, it would attract a lot more passing interest. No doubt some might complain it would be it the men's tournament's shadow, but that's better than being entirely invisible, and being in the midst of the world's biggest sporting spectacle would be excellent exposure for the game, and would provide a nice counterpoint. Even if in women's football, Germany always wins.

7. Declare a month's national holiday everywhere in the world. You know it makes sense.

My situation as a viewer is unchanged: still offshore Norway, still flitting between Norweigan television coverage and all kinds of internet streaming, with zero alcohol beers helping me through the matches (there have been a few where proper alcohol really would have helped). I'm realising my situation, given that I'm offshore, is astonishingly lucky, as the games fall at excellent times (as long as I'm willing to cut my sleep a little short) and the rig action is very quiet right now. Jobwise, there's a thing stuck in a hole - but you don't want to know about that. Happily, I can be here for no longer than one more week, which will see me through to the second round, where (I pray) I can watch the remainder of tournament in a succession of pubs, in a series of incoherent states. And that would be a result.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

South Africa 2010

It's the World Cup: I love the World Cup.

In this bleak and heartless universe, where life is just a vehicle for the expression of pain and where death is a godless and eternal void, the World Cup is a genuine ray of light and burst of colour. Temporarily, we can put aside the crushing misery of our daily lives, and revel in a festival of football, and glory in the sublime achievement of mankind to organise this global event that overtakes an entire nation and captivates billions of diverse individuals across our spinning heavenly body. For a whole month, magic dances and we are all enchanted by the dazzling spells conjured by the feet of a few hundred supremely blessed athletes. If you - yes, YOU - are not touched by the World Cup in some way, then you are not fit to be a member of our species: please leave mankind immediately.

Truly, there is nothing quite in the same realm. Sure, the Olympics may have more participating countries, but it only takes place in one city rather than across a nation, is far less focussed and has no building storyline or theme (except of "unity"...), and the best sport featured - the 100m - takes place in the first few days meaning the weeks following are all downhill. The World Cup is focussed only on football, with recurring heroes and villains, impossible moments of drama, bitter injustices, outstanding skills, and a rising level of excitement and tension as the tournament draws to its brilliant and ultimate conclusion to crown one team only as the Champions of Earth.

Even those not normally partial to football are touched and stroked by the World Cup. My mother, not known for a close interest in the beautiful game, openly enjoys the tournament, and will include it in her conversations and even watch the occasional match. It is a worldwide event, coming round for only one month every four years (that's one out of every forty-eight months, or 2.1% of time itself) and this rarity of occurrence makes it even more special.

Indeed, as is often regaled during social converse, you can track your life by World Cups. Looking back on each tournament and where and how you watched it, the progress of your life can be observed. The first tournament I can remember is Italia '90. Aged 11, I wasn't really into football then, and didn't watch many games, but I recall being on a school trip to Holland, and hearing the result of the opening game, a massively surprising 1-0 victory for Cameroon over Argentina. I bought a poster of the Holland team while there, and watched most of the later games, back home in Dingwall. Dingwall was the scene also for USA '94. This was certainly when the World Cup came alive for me. My abiding memory is of the (instrumental version) of the Bernstein's West Side Story song "America" being used as the BBC's theme, and my whole family tapping furiously in vague rhythm every time it came on, and eating a grand curry for the final, where poor Roberto Baggio blazed his penalty over the bar to give Brazil the cup. I watched loads of games, mostly on late at night, and that was it: aged 15, I'd fallen in love for the rest of my life.

Fast forward then to me at 19, and an Aberdeen University student, studying (rather improbably) biochemistry. Of course, by the start of France '98, the university year was over and the vast holidays of the undergraduate had begun. The majority of the games that tournament were watched at home, in my conservatory, shared with the likes of Green and M. Fraser, on what was considered a rather swanky TV back in that past millennium. The opening game was Scotland vs Brazil, obviously a big event, and made even more memorable by the tremendously misjudged gesture by my deviant friend, H, who appeared wearing a Brazil top. This did not go down at all well, and H has never really lived this down. I may have had a short-lived diddy evening job at an off-licence that summer, but can't remember if it interfered with the football - I have a feeling I may have missed a few games because of it. Regardless, the final took place at the same time as "T in the Park", and with a large crowd of bohemian youths/neds, I watched France beat Brazil 3-0 on a big screen, to the surprising delight of the masses.

My favourite World Cup was next: Korea/Japan 2002, aged 23. As well as being a brilliant tournament, full of surprises and upsets, it also was the premise of a self-set challenge to watch every single game of the tournament, but without compromising my lifestyle. My job then was evening work washing dishes at Estaminet, which was my post-university career for a couple of years. My lifestyle then was basically that of a total waster. I would finish washing dishes - or rather "washing dishes" might be more accurate - at 10pm, and then go out almost every single night and get myself into a state of absolute intoxication. As the games took place, in UK time, between 6am and 2pm, some nights I couldn't even go to sleep as the football would be starting. Even when I did sleep, it would only be for a few hours, as every day for almost three weeks I would have to be up by 6 or 7am to watch the first game of the day. Hours of football then followed, and then I'd have to go to work. And then further intoxocation. It is no understatement when I say this was all very bad for my health. After three weeks there was a blessed two day break from football, but by this time I was visibily gaunt. I had barely slept in that time. The World Cup final was an interesting twist. It took place at noon on Sunday - and, astoundingly, my work decided to put me on an entirely unprecedented ten hour shift, 12-10pm. I thought they were surely joking, as I only ever worked evenings, 6-10pm, but they were gravely serious and said I'd be fired if I didn't turn up. As it transpired, they had brought in a few TVs for the final, to show in the bar, and were expecting a few people and thus extra dishes to be washed (they were wrong). Anyway, I got around this by smuggling a TV into the kitchen, propping it up on a sink, and very slowly grating a large block of cheese for two hours while watching Ronaldo score two goals against Germany. This successfully completed my mission of watching every single game that tournament (although I was barely conscious or coherent for much of it).

Aged 27, I had just returned from two years living in Korea by the time of Germany 2006, and had just started a new job - the job I'm doing to this day. My intention was again to watch every game, and I almost succeeded. What failed me? The World Cup itself, as I went over to Germany for a week to watch two games - South Korea 0-2 Swiss, and Swiss 0-0 Ukraine (Ukraine won 3-0 on penalties). While there, I watched loads of games on big screens, in Cologne and Hanover, but it was the actual transit between UK and Germany, via Holland, that took place during the games that resulted in missing a few. The rest of the games were either watched at Justin's, or at work. Still very new, I was on base every day for training. Except training in these days came in the form of using your own initiative, as it was termed, or "speak to someone else" as it might be put in plain English. This suited me very well, as after speaking to people in the morning, and perhaps actually doing some real training, in the afternoon I would hide myself in an obscure unit, set up an elaborate "test" with some electronics and let it run while I watched the football via BBC or ITV internet streaming. I watched the final at a friend's parents' house in the country, after being invited for a weekend-long barbecue. This barbecue/party invite was entirely independent of the football, as that group of friends had no real interest in the most important sport and tournament in human history, so I had to watch the thrid-place match alone, but we all watched the final together and thoroughly enjoyed Zidane's glorious finale. I believe this barbecue has since become an annual event; however, as I behaved quite badly I've not been invited back since.

And so we arrive to the present day, aged 31, mature and wise. I was deeply worried before this tournament as I'd not booked any holidays and there was a real fear that if I was sent away on a job, depending on the nature of the job I might miss a considerable amount of football. Although sometimes I spend vast swathes of time on rigs or in hotels just to hang around, I also sometimes have quite a lot to do. In the case of the latter, sitting down for two hours of football three times a day would simply be unthinkable.

Happily, I appear to have got lucky, and my current stint in Norway is extremely accommodating for watching the World Cup. I'm on night-shift, 7pm to 7am, which means that the first two games of the day (1.30pm and 4pm, Norweigan time) can be watched before I start work. It does mean I'm only getting about five hours sleep a night (8am to 1pm) but I can live with this. The evening game (8.30pm) is marginally trickier as I'm on shift, but fortunately the bulk of my time is currently spent monitoring data in a remote unit where I'm little disturbed. The internet here is utterly fantastic - the fastest I've ever seen in my life - and so this means I've been able to stream the matches.

Yes, streaming matches online has very much become a flavour of this current World Cup. Although I have the option to go to the rig's "Blue Room", a cinema-like set-up that shows the games, I've mostly been eschewing that to watch them either on my own room's TV or on my laptop. This is because for the first game of the day, I'm still so knackered I can't get out of bed, and because online I can get English commentary. Sometimes. Streaming games online is becoming somewhat of an art, a juggling act, because it's all so unreliable. Most of the sites I try simply don't work or require dubious downloads, and some manage to show only seconds of footage before freezing. Happily, I've hit upon a few winners. The improbable is a gem, and shows a mixture of BBC, ITV and Australian TV commentary, and I watched part of yesterday's Italian game via it, with Italian commentary. I've discovered another site with loads of links, mostly useless, but I've managed to watch ESPN coverage from it once, and it handily links to There's, a new discovery, and - Justin, you'll love this -, which promises more than it delivers, but did help me to watch the England-USA game hours after it had actually happened. The England-USA game is the only one I missed live, as things were incredibly busy then while dealing with a minor crisis and so two hours of football was definitely out, but I managed to see the highlights plus the second half, hours later.

Of course, the quality of internet streaming is awful, though better than nothing obviously, but this adds to the flavour of the whole tournament for me. Sometimes it freezes or stops and I can't really make out the individual features of the players, but I can still see clearly what's going on and every day is a challenge as there's never any guarantee as to which website will be working, and Norweigan TV (on this rig) only seems to show certain games. But that's half the fun of it, desperately trying multiple websites just before kick-off, and then having to switch after half an hour when the chosen one gives up.

I think I'll probably have another week of this before heading back onshore where, one would imagine, it would be much easier to watch games, especially as the volume of games decreases. With luck, if I'm not whisked away to yet another job, I might get to watch the second half of the tournament in Edinburgh, in pubs, drinking, as opposed to watching it alone drinking the alcohol-free beer supplied on the rig (which I'm quite getting into, if truth be told). As long as I get to see all the games though, I really don't care where I am, or how little sleep I'm getting.

A word, finally, on this year's World Cup itself. Isn't it rubbish? The quality of football has been pretty dire, and the games dull to watch. I think it'll improve, as things warm up, but watching a series of 0-0s and 1-0s is not entertainment. No, and especially when soundtracked by that damn stupid trumpet. If you're going to let a few hundred (? thousand?) people blow some bloody atonal one-note trumpet for the whole game, almost entirely drowning out the natural ebb and flow of the crowd, why not just rig up the stadium speakers and blast out the bee-like buzz at full volume and save everyone the effort? This awful trumpet is becoming an absolute blight to this World Cup, making the games unpleasant to have to listen to, and making it impossible for the viewer - and, I'm sure, the actual crowd - to get into the feel of the game. Football (as well as many other sports) is very much driven by crowd atmosphere and so to drown out cheering, booing, singing and chanting by some blasted ugly horn that drones incessantly for the entire duration of the match creates a weird feeling for the game that affects both fan reaction and I have no doubt the football quality itself. The trumpets are continuous and aren't "played" in reaction to the game's events, rather just blown for the sake of making a racket, oblivious to the action.

These trumpets are obviously the bane of South Africa 2010 and in addition to the half-empty stadiums (seemingly caused by terrible infrastructure and traffic gridlock rather than poor sales) and propensity for the crowd to Mexican wave at every opportunity, I do fear that this may end up being the poorest World Cup in my experience. I hope I'm wrong. And I especially hope that God reveals Himself and cuts off the mouth of every person playing these trumpets.

Regardless of my trumpet-hatred and the poor football so far, my love of the World Cup is totally unshaken and each night shift I look forward to going to bed just so I can wake up the next morning, ready for hours of football. Tomorrow (well, today technically) is New Zealand vs Slovakia, The Coat of Ivory vs Portugal and Brazil vs North Korea. Now, just look at these three ties and wonder in awe at the majesty of this tournament.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The West Phoenix

So, Norway it is.

Norway has a reputation for being the swanky one in town when it comes to oil. The rigs especially. Unlike places such as Brazil and Mexico, who appear to believe that economy and efficiency is all about having the cheapest, oldest rigs possible and cramming the rig workers in like cattle, Norway takes the other approach and has lovely, modern rigs where they treat the workers well, and allow them a degree of comfort. I daresay that both approaches have their merits when taken from the bigger picture of overall cost per oil well; but from the perspective from an individual who has to spend weeks or months of my life – a one-shot deal of finite duration, you will be aware – there is no doubt where I’d rather be.

In fact, where I’d rather be is Edinburgh, in my flat, drinking whisky – but let’s not get into that.

So I’m happy to report that the rig I’ve been on since Friday, the West Phoenix, is without any doubt the best I’ve ever been on.

Let’s qualify that statement a little. Although I’m certainly still a fresh face in comparison to some of the haggard geriatrics that make up the offshore business, I’ve been to quite a few rigs in quite a few countries in my four years in my job. Many offshore workers can spend years or even decades shuttling to and from the same rig, and even many service company personnel – who work on a job-to-job basis rather than rotation on the same rig – will be based in one area as opposed to being sent around the world. But one of the highlights of my job in a small company that don’t, by and large, have international employees dedicated to one region, is that I get to go round the world. That may mean highlights such as Malaysia or lowlights like Nigeria or Angola, and with lots of quirky spots like Mauritania, Trinidad and Ghana in between.

And it also means a tour of the world’s rigs.

This has taken many forms, with Brazil being the main villain: six-man rooms, porn-obsessed Brazilians, ghastly meat gloop masquerading as food, cockroaches, and a perpetual struggle to be allowed to contact the outside world. Sleeping in the eight-man container next to the helideck on a rig on Mozambique hasn’t yet been forgiven or forgotten, likewise the rusting hulk offshore Oman in which I had to spend days lying in bed because there simply wasn’t anywhere else to go. But usually conditions are a little better, with two-man rooms, edible food, and a modicum of space. But luxury they are not. At a rough count, I think I’ve been on about seventeen rigs in about ten or so countries, and even the good ones could never be mistaken for floating sea hotels.

But the West Phoenix, well, it's something altogether different. It's vast, for a start, a considerable size larger than what I'm used to. There are three TV rooms, at least - as well as flatscreen TVs in every bedroom (never mind that it's predominantly weird Norweigan TV, that's not the point). The internet is ultra high speed, the fastest I've ever encountered in my life whether onshore or offshore, and is in every room. It has all sorts of bonus features, such as bingo nights, sun beds, saunas, lots of board games and even a lift within the accommodation for those who can't summon the energy to walk up three flights of stairs. But best of all are the one-man rooms. Yes, one-man rooms. Oh, what a rare luxury this in on a rig, where usually you're stuffed in some pokey coffin with many other men grunting, sweating, snoring and chattering around you. I've never before had a one-man room on a rig before; I'd grown used to abandoning privacy for weeks at a time upon arriving offshore, but now I've experienced it I don't know if I can go back.

Another minor highlight is the unit I'm in when working, which has a profer hifi system in-built, meaning that I can playing pounding techno at ferocious volumes.

So that is where I find myself now, in the offshore luxury of a Norweigan oil rig. My previous three months were more-or-less spent in Nigeria, doing exceptionally little except vegetate. Oh I wrote a 157 page book too. Nigeria is my excuse for writing so little recently as it's a profoundly demotivating place, and I don't know what's worse: being trapped for interminable weeks in the listless Novotel in Port Harcourt, or actually having to go into Port Harcourt itself and deal with the ferocious and stifling heat, chaos and anger. I've still not really got my head back to normal yet, and only having a handful of days at home before going to Norway means I'm still in a bit of a mental daze.

But never mind, because Norway is of a finite duration - a maximum of two weeks left - and the World Cup starts tomorrow! Hurray!