Monday, April 7th, 2014

Oh boy, where do I start? This day started slow and ended in a frenzy. But I’ll get to that.

Monday was our final day in Bangkok before we headed to Pakistan for the tournament, so it was relatively subdued. Thai massages were endured, tuk-tuks were hailed, and temples were viewed. It was a relaxed final day, as we tried to prepare ourselves mentally for whatever was going to happen when we got to Lahore.

In all honesty, we had no idea what was going to greet us once we got to Pakistan. We had no idea what the skill levels of our opposition were going to be like, as there was very little in the way of photos or videos of subcontinental fistball teams in action. We had no idea of the tournament schedule, as very little information had been released by our Pakistani organisers. We had no idea what sort of greeting we would get by both the organisers and the locals, as quite frankly we knew little of the realities of life in Pakistan. And what were they expecting from us? Intense professionalism or a pack of dishevelled larrikans? It was all unknown.

With all of that on our mind, we slid into our matching Australia Fistball polo shirts, climbed into a set of taxis, headed to Bangkok airport and boarded our flight to Pakistan.

Review of Thai Airways flight TG 345: smaller plane, so dismally minimal entertainment options (one television at the front of the section), but the food was excellent. Three stars.

When we arrived in Lahore, I had a very specific fear to overcome – my passport expired in 5 months and 3 weeks from our Pakistan departure date, and much of the travel material I had received about Pakistan stated that you will be refused entry if you have less than 6 months remaining. While this information was clearly outlining a unrealistically hard line cut-off designed to encourage people to be over-prepared, it didn’t make me any less nervous as I lined up at Passport Control. I put myself through devastating visuals of being turned around and marched back onto a plane to Australia, falling heartbreakingly close to realising the national sporting dream only to have the dream ripped away by frustrating static bureaucratic policies. In my mind, I would raise my fist as they guided me through to a restricted area, a single tear rolling down my cheek as I tried to process how everything had fallen apart due to my stubborn refusal to renew my passport in time. Also, I had all the teams uniforms in my bag, so the team would’ve been stuffed. I had held the team hostage with my actions. It was a huge moment that could make or break the entire trip. Either way, the guy stamped my passport with a look of indifference and I was through.

Waiting in the baggage area, we playfully betted on what we thought would be awaiting us as we departed the terminal. Would there be a taxi? A chauffeur? Perhaps our FiFA contact and tournament organiser Usman would be waiting for us to say “hello”. We had no idea. A police officer cornered Eric and Lee and asked if they were from Australia, and whether they were “players”. They responded with “yes”, and the police officer said that they were waiting for us in the arrivals area. “Oh good,” we thought, “at least we’ll have a taxi that knows were to take us”. We loitered as James exchange baht for rupees, before we gathered as a team and headed towards the sliding doors into Lahore.

“Ooh, looks like someone important is here,” I thought to myself, spotting the camera crews set up between the two steel barriers that guided our exit. Rolf walked ahead of us as we took in our surroundings. “Oh wait… that looks like Usman”. As he eagerly moved forward to greet each of us with a firm handshake, it all started to sink in – we had arrived to a media conference. Four Pakistani camera crews were set up ready to go, while a magnificent bouquet of flowers was placed into the arms of our bewildered fistball captain & FiFA President. Seemingly shaking himself into reality, Rolf composed himself just long enough to realise that microphones had been thrust towards him and the questions had begun.

“How does it feel to be the first Australian National sports team to tour Pakistan in 11 years?”

It would appear they saw us as trailblazers, willing to disregard the international media sensationalism about the dangers of Pakistan in order to fulfil a sporting dream, and by doing so we were choosing to recognise and respect the strong sporting bond that Pakistan continues to have with Australia. To be honest, we had no idea an Australian team hadn’t been here since 2003. Apparently Mark Taylor hit 300 against Pakistan on that tour, something they remember fondly.  It must be nice to remember Mark Taylor for that, rather than having to endure his commentating every summer. Either way, we were accidental pioneers, and it felt nice.

After Rolf responded to each question like a media savvy professional sportsman,  I was thrown into the spotlight to provide a second talking head. I quickly racked my brain to try and dig up every inoffensively charming sporting cliché. I couldn’t yet “give full credit to the boys” and we hadn’t yet “given 110%”.  They asked me how I felt to be in Lahore. I was excited to be in Lahore, so that was an easy answer. I think I said something in reference to the fact that we’ve never had the full team together for a practice and were looking forward to that. I’m not sure why I told them that, as I certainly wasn’t responding to a leading question. I can only hope they interpreted that as us being too busy playing in professional fistball leagues all over the world. We were shuffled into a group shot as Usman addressed the cameras. It was official – we were an international sporting team in an international sporting tournament. After being completely weightless and carefree in Bangkok, we suddenly had expectations thrust upon us simply by being worthy of media attention. It was a lot to take in.

As we walked to our transport, a little girl emerged from the crowd that had been watching, walked up to Eric and shook his hand. “You’re my favourite player,” she said. It was adorable, and Eric was taken aback. We’ll have to monitor his ego going forward. As we gathered to climb into the mini van still surrounded by cameras, an older Pakistani woman came up to Lee and asked for his number and autograph. Confused and slightly frazzled, he fumbled with the pen and paper she had handed to him. “Does she want my uniform number or my phone number?” he asked no-one in particular. One of the helpers came over and told him to write his uniform number down and he obliged. I hope she didn’t just chuck it straight onto eBay. We’ll also have to keep an eye on his ego as well. James wasn’t offered any special treatment, but it’s likely they wouldn’t have gotten much out of him anyway – he spent the bulk of the media conference mouth agape, taking in his surroundings like a kid at the planetarium for the first time.

The ride to the hotel was in a convoy with a police escort. Was it a good idea to attract this much attention to ourselves? We weren’t sure, but it sure was an interesting way to travel. We got to the hotel, talked shop with our friendly hosts for an hour, and then crashed in our twin hotel rooms. The media conference may have acted like a natural Red Bull…but it was 4am Bangkok time, and we were already coming down from the high.

Tomorrow we practice for the first time in what feels like months, but is in reality only 10 days. Let’s hope we remember how to play.

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