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Photo: AP
Before the Australian men’s soccer team’s first World Cup appearance in 1974 (pictured above), the team competed in war-torn Saigon.

Young, ambitious Australians, playing for their country for free in 1967, didn’t know any better when they accepted an invitation to a soccer tournament — in Saigon. I heard this story on WBUR radio’s Only a Game. It is beyond amazing.

James Parkinson reported, ” ‘It was one of these stories that you heard at a bar with colleagues and ex-players, and you thought, “Is this really true? Could this really be a thing? Surely this didn’t actually happen,” ‘ sports journalist Davidde Corran says. ‘Except that it really did actually happen. It really was the way that they told it.’

“It was November 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, when an international football tournament was held in Saigon. Eight nations would compete: New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, then South Vietnam and Australia. …

” ‘We were the pawns in the game to win over the South Vietnamese people, so it was a PR exercise,’ says Ray Baartz, a former Australian national team player, from 1967 to 1974. …

“There was little time for the players to think about the potential dangers of sending civilians into a war zone.

” ‘I think it was about a matter of weeks. We’re on the plane off to Vietnam. We didn’t have too many discussions about it,’ says Stan Ackerley, who represented Australia from 1965 to 1969. ‘These days, you would think twice about going.’ …

” ‘Well, the first, biggest shock we got was the amount of armed people we saw — soldiers, sentry points all over the place,”‘ Stan says.

“Bombers here, and fighter planes here, there and everywhere,” Ray says. “You thought, ‘Hello, we are in the middle of a war zone,’ you know? And we got through the airport, and then into the bus to take us to the hotel and had a police escort all the way.” …

” ‘They went to this briefing at the embassy, and one of the things they were told was, “Be careful of people riding on bikes because it might be someone who’s a threat, and they could mistake you for an American or a soldier and attack you and shoot you,” ‘ Davidde says. ‘[These] players, in this completely new surrounding, walk out of the Australian Embassy, and what do they see? Just a city filled with people riding around on bikes.’ …

“The players discovered the proprietor of their hotel had stolen their food vouchers, leaving them with nothing but substitute ham. And Stan received an electric shock, thanks to exposed wires in his room. Even the training pitch was questionable.

” ‘The training field was a real quagmire at the best of times, so you couldn’t train there all the time because of the conditions and that,’ Ray says. ‘It was really a cow paddock. You know, quite often we’d train on the roof of the hotel, just to keep the body moving a little bit. We weren’t allowed to train on the main stadium.’

” ‘There would have been this surreal sight during this short period of the Vietnam War, where footballs were just falling off the top of this building, this hotel, every day during training,’ Davidde says. …

“The tournament began with a group stage. Australia was drawn into Group A alongside New Zealand, Singapore and hosts South Vietnam.

” ‘The army was going around the stadium with mine detectors and so forth, and then you think, “Oh, hello,” ‘ Ray says. …

” ‘You gotta bear in mind that these players — a lot of these players were playing for the national team unpaid,’ Davidde says. ‘You’re taking annual leave to go and play for the national team — you’re sacrificing to play for the national team.’ …

“The Australian team’s PR mission had, in some ways, managed to work. The Vietnamese people had just seen their own team eliminated in the other semifinal. They also loathed the South Korean soldiers. So they began cheering for the Australians. …

” ‘To be part of the first tournament that we ever won was fantastic,’ Ray says. ‘You know, we were all so thrilled and so proud to be a part of it.’

“The magnitude of Australia’s performance in the Friendship Tournament cannot be overstated. Not only did they perform on the pitch, but they did it in remarkable circumstances, and all for the honor of representing their country.

” ‘To play for your country, you have to sacrifice a lot,’ Stan says. ‘So we sacrificed a lot, you know?’ ”

Wow. More at Only a Game, here.

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Photo: David Llada
Dorsa Derakhshani could read before the age of 2 and grew up to be a chess champion. She was banned from Iran’s chess association for not wearing a headscarf.

After you read this article on an Iranian chess prodigy, you are sure to be surprised by her current career goal. Not that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s just surprising.

Mika Klein interviewed Dorsa Derakhshani at WBUR radio’s Only a Game, first watching an old video of Dorsa to get some background.

“The year was 2000. Dorsa was 2, and appearing on a children’s television show. Dorsa wears a red velvet dress with puffy sleeves and dark tights. She’s tightly clutching a stuffed puppy, so the interviewer holds the microphone for her. Dorsa breaks into song, with the poise of seasoned performer, and the studio audience applauds.

“The camera cuts to the audience. Most of the girls are sitting in the back, many are wearing headscarves. Dorsa’s head is uncovered.

“Dorsa was born in Tehran in 1998. And this is just one of many times she appeared on Iranian TV. This time, she reads a story from a children’s book. …

” ‘Are you saying you could read at the age of 2?’

“ ‘No,’ Dorsa says. ‘I could read when I was 1 1/2. But I finished first grade when I was 2.’

“Dorsa’s television career as a child prodigy was never going to last forever, but it ended abruptly when she was 6.

“ ‘They made me wear a scarf against my will,’ says Dorsa … ‘I never went back for the TV.

“ ‘I finished fourth grade when I was 4 1/2. Math, science, everything. … My parents tried to fill my time with other things like music, swimming, ballet, gymnastics, painting.”

“Right next door to her painting class was a chess class. Dorsa decided to join. …

” ‘Chess was really different, because you are actually playing with a live human being,” Dorsa says. … ‘You can’t be 100 percent ready and sure that you play good when you go to a tournament.’

“Dorsa’s first big success came in the Iranian national youth under-8 tournament.

“ ‘It was a big surprise for everyone, because there were players who already had private coaches and they came to win,’ Dorsa says. ‘I came out of nowhere, and I won the tournament. I remember that everybody else was wearing a scarf, even under 8. But I wore a princess dress and a tiara. And it was really cute. …

“Dorsa went on to win three straight gold medals at the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Asian Junior Championships. In the numerical chess ratings lists, Dorsa was at the top for all girls in Asia. …

“I first met Dorsa at the Chess Olympiad in September 2016. She was attending as a journalist, not a player. The tournament was in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a country that is 98 percent Muslim. She did not wear a headscarf at the tournament or on the street. I’ve never seen her wear one.”

Klein continues with a story of the time when Dorsa was traveling and saw that her Instagram account was going crazy. She went to bed and forgot about it. In the morning friends explained that ” ‘they saw on newspaper that my federation banned me — my brother and I, actually, both of us. It was just very out of the blue.’ ”

Dorsa’s brother, Borna, was banned for competing against someone from Israel, Dorsa for not wearing a headscarf.

“She believes the action against her and her brother was a tactic to divert from other news. The announcement came in the middle of the Women’s World Chess Championship, which was being held in Tehran. Several notable players, including the reigning U.S. women’s champion, boycotted the event because players were required to wear a headscarf. All three Iranian women competing had just been eliminated in the opening round. …

“This July, she moved to the U.S. after being accepted to the chess team at St. Louis University. She said there were no problems when she landed in New York and cleared immigration.

” ‘I’m hoping to become a dentist,’ Dorsa says. ‘I’m looking forward to finally having a stable trainer and a team, and I really wish to become grandmaster.’ ”

More at WBUR, here.

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Photo: Only a Game
Golf was the entree to a freer world for this Afghan girl.

We hear a lot of stories about disadvantaged kids who rise above their circumstances by becoming stars — at sports, say, or ballet.

But sometimes the reason those pursuits mark a turning point is simply that they open up a different world. They show the kid that there are different worlds. The kids don’t have to become stars to benefit.

Here is a story about an Afghan girl whose path to breaking free involved golf. Martin Kessler tells the story at the radio show Only a Game.

“Before it was her turn to take the shot that could change her life, Shagufa Habibi remembers being uncomfortably warm.

“Shagufa and 11 of her teammates were standing on a soccer pitch in Herat, Afghanistan. Herat doesn’t have a golf course, so this soccer pitch was the best her team could do. It was a summer afternoon — the hottest part of the day in a city where temperatures can exceed 100 degrees. It was the only time locals would let the women have the field.

“Shagufa wore a long black dress and a head scarf. She carried a wooden club.

“Each of the women had one chance to hit a ball at a target at the other end of the field. Whoever got closest would get to attend a golf tournament in Bangladesh.”

Shagufa amazed herself. Her shot was the best.

“Shagufa Habibi was born in 1995, the youngest child in a large family. Her parents are illiterate. Her dad made his living selling dried fruit — until his hand was mangled in a terrorist attack at a local mosque. …

“When Shagufa was a young girl, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Girls couldn’t go to school, so Shagufa and her seven sisters stayed home. Shagufa was allowed outside just once a day, to help her mom buy food. …

“In 2001, the Taliban lost control of the government, and schools opened for girls. Shagufa’s friends started attending. But Shagufa’s father wouldn’t have it – he believed women belonged at home.

“So Shagufa and her sisters devised a plan. After their father left the house in the morning, they would sneak off to school.”

Over the next few years, there were conflicts with Shagufa’s conservative father, an unwanted marriage to an older man, separation, depression, and a decision to embrace sports at school. Sports were so freeing.

” ‘I was forgetting everything,’ Shagufa says. ‘I’m just free. And this ball was giving me more motivation for my future to be so optimistic.’

When Shagufa went to that golf tournament, she was “amazed by what she saw in Bangladesh. Girls weren’t wearing long dresses or scarves. She says women looked so free.

“On the final day of the trip, the Afghan embassy hosted their players for a lunch. The conversation turned to education. Shagufa had a question – but she wasn’t sure she should speak up.

” ‘Should I ask them or not, should I ask them or not?’ Shagufa remembers thinking. ‘Then I said, “Would you tell me, please: how is the education in Bangladesh? And is it possible for me, somehow, I come and do my education?” ‘ ”

Read what happened next at WBUR’s Only a Game, here.

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Photo: Evan Petty
Kids enjoying the baseball field at the Allen VR Stanley Secondary School of Math and Science for the Athletically Talented near Kampala, Uganda. 

The inimitable Karen Given at WBUR radio’s Only a Game has found another inspiring story to share with listeners. This one is about a Syracuse University grad who found his calling thanks to a youth baseball team in Uganda.

“Back in the spring of 2014, Evan Petty was a senior at Syracuse University. And he was feeling a little anxious.

” ‘Um … the pressure’s starting to kick in at that point,’ Evan says. “I didn’t really know what it is that I was really going to do. I had always really liked sports. I got a journalism degree, but I didn’t work hard enough to turn it into anything.’ …

“After graduation, Evan flew to Fairbanks to write game reports for the Goldpanners — a collegiate summer team. …

” ‘I guess it bought me time. That’s pretty much all it did,’ he says.

“Evan spent that summer thinking about baseball — he’d always loved the game. He thought he’d like to be a coach. But he didn’t have any training or experience. He figured he’d never find a paid job in this country, so he started looking elsewhere.

” ‘So I think that I looked in places like Japan, even, and places in Europe. Spain, they play some baseball. I took some Spanish in high school, maybe I could make something work with that,’ Evan says. ‘But then Uganda came up.’

“Yep. Uganda. A school was looking for an English teacher/assistant baseball coach.

“The Allen VR Stanley International School of Math and Science for the Athletically Talented was founded by an American businessman who wants to bring baseball to Uganda. Besides teaching kids math and science and English, the school had another well-publicized goal: to send a team to Williamsport.

“Evan had been watching the Little League World Series on TV since he was 13. He loves it.

“The quality of the play is so high, and everything about it is so emotional and real. It’s raw. Like, it’s so raw. It’s just the best,” he says. …

“Evan hopped on an airplane and flew to Kampala. …

“When Evan saw the baseball team he’d be coaching, he was even more excited. It’s not that the players had a lot of experience. In fact, many of them had none at all.

” ‘Put it this way: Balls were being thrown very fast, and bats were being swung very hard, and players were running very fast,’ Evan says. ‘There was a lot of raw talent everywhere.’ …

“In 2011, the team won the qualifying tournament in Poland, but the players were denied visas to come to the United States. Many of the players don’t have birth certificates. ‘Paperwork is hard in Uganda,’ Evan told me. …

” ‘We had to do a whole lot of stuff and satisfy a whole lot of people and pay a whole lot of money [in 2015 to attend the qualifying games in Poland],’ Evan says. ‘And then we had to win the games, and that was the easy part.’ …

“Uganda was headed back to Williamsport, and they had one simple goal.

” ‘Shock the world,’ Evan says.”

That is what they did. Read more.

Interestingly, the Disney flic Queen of Katwe — about a young female chess prodigy from the Katwe, Uganda, slums — also demonstrates that committed adults and international competitions offer Ugandan children one of their best hopes for rising above challenging circumstances.

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Maria Toorpakai is the top-ranked female squash player in Pakistan. Toorpakai is coached by retired Canadian squash star Jonathon Power, pictured here.

WBUR’s Only a Game is great at searching out fascinating sports stories that few media channels cover. Here is one about a female squash player bucking the odds in a conservative part of Pakistan, where girls just don’t do this kind of thing.

Karen Given reports, “There are places in this world where games aren’t just games and where sports heroes have the power to be more than just pixels on a television screen.

“One of those places is Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s tribal region. That’s where Maria Toorpakai grew up. Her sport was squash, and her hero was Jonathan Power — a Canadian who, in 1999, became the first North American squash player to become No. 1 in the world.

“From an early age, Toorpakai wasn’t like the other girls.

” ‘When I was two years old, I could see the happiness in boys’ faces and more glow. But most of the women are just no one, you know? …

” ‘I thought maybe it’s the differences because boys have different clothes than girls. So then I took all my girly dresses and I took it to the backyard and I burnt them, and I was four-and-a-half. I saw my father and he didn’t say anything but when I looked at him he just smiled and said, “Well, I guess I have a fifth son now.” ‘

“Toorpakai’s father allowed her to masquerade as a boy and play sports. But when she discovered squash at the age of 12, the family’s secret began to unravel.

” ‘There’s a proper squash academy and he took me there. And he asked what we should do for squash, and my son wants to play squash. The director of the squash academy, he said definitely we will give membership to this kid. You have to bring the birth certificate first. My father got a little nervous.’

“Maria Toorpakai tells her story In Her Own Words. To hear the full story, click [this page] the play button below the headline at the top of the page. Toorpakai’s book is called ‘A Different Kind of Daughter.’ ”

I really recommend becoming familiar with WBUR’s Only a Game, here. It’s syndicated nationally, and non-sports fans love it as much as sports fans.

Longtime host Bill Littlefield is an unusual sports maven. An English professor, he covers football but especially how it hurts athletes, and he has instituted an approach to interviews (like Toorpakai’s) in which a talented interviewer (like Karen Givens) asks probing questions that enable interviewees to tell their own story. The interviewer’s voice doesn’t appear. I love this idea. It sounds so natural.

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In honor of the Kentucky Derby last month, Karen Given reported a story on Only a Game about the naming of thoroughbred horses. At the end, the radio show’s host, Bill Littlefield, did a  funny imitation of calling a race. I won’t be able to do it justice. You’ll have to listen to the clip.

“Since 2004,” Given reports, “Rick Bailey has been the registrar for the Jockey Club, and he really enjoys the creativity he gets to witness in his job. Bailey and his staff review about 40,000 names every year and approve two-thirds to three-quarters of them. The numbers add up pretty quickly.

” ‘We do have 350,000 to 400,000 names that are considered active,’ Bailey says.

“With that many names off the table, maybe owners are just running out of normal horse names to choose from? …

“The list of available names is getting bigger, Bailey says, because the horse racing industry is getting smaller.

“There will never be another Secretariat or Seabiscuit. Those names have been permanently retired. But the names of less successful horses are eventually released. Bailey publishes those names on the Jockey Club’s website every year. This year, that list included more than 45,000 names. …

“The list includes Bambi le Bleu, Fabulous Rex, and Zippity Doodah Day. …

“Most ancient horses, says [Philip Sidnell, who has written the book on ancient warhorses], are named for pretty mundane reasons. Take the horses who ran in the ancient Roman chariot races.

” ‘They had names like “Swift” or another called “Snotty” and one called “Chatterbox.” ‘ “

Listen to Littlefield showcase some unusual horse names in the clip, here. “It’s Cookie Monster, Maple Syrup and Spineless Jellyfish  … Cookie Monster is hungry on the outside …”

 Photo: Only a Game

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In Bolivia, an indigenous woman who would have been disenfranchised before the presidency of Evo Morales has become a popular wrestler. And  she loves what she does.

connects with Angela La Folklorista in La Paz to report her story at WBUR’s Only a Game.

“She calls herself, ‘Una mujer de la pollera.’ Woman of the skirt. That’s another way of saying ‘I’m a cholita.’ Cholitas are indigenous women of Bolivia, usually ethnically Quechuan or Ayamaran. You can recognize cholitas by their ankle-length puffy skirts and their tiny bowler hats, which seem like they’ll fall off any minute. …

“Until recently, cholitas were second-class citizens, boxed out from higher education and often stuck cleaning homes,” generally relegated to the kitchen.

“Where Angela works is nothing like a kitchen.

” ‘In the ring,’ Angela says in Spanish, ‘I have a technical fighter style. I’m not rough. I’m on the nice side. There are bad cholitas, as you would call them, but my style is technical.’

“Angela is a cholita luchadora — a Bolivian pro-wrestler. She fights in a league similar to Lucha Libre in Mexico or the WWE in the United States. It’s the kind of wrestling with heroes and villains, entrance songs. Angela gives me two ringside tickets for the upcoming bout in El Alto – La Paz’s sister city. She’s the headliner. …

“Angela doesn’t fight other women. She fights the men. There’s some weird sexist stuff happening, but by the end of the match Angela is always the winner. …

“ ‘I’m very happy and content to have another night of fighting,’ she says in Spanish, ‘another night of art, adrenaline and strength, another night that I’m in the center of the ring, happy, doing what I like most.’ She’s covered in sweat.

“ ‘Mi madre es luchadora,’ Angela’s middle-school aged daughter Theresa says.

“ ‘It’s a pleasure for me that she’s a wrestler,’ Theresa says in Spanish, ‘I’m very proud of her, I’m her number one fan.’

“Theresa describes the cholitas luchadoras as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But she doesn’t want her mom’s job. It’s too dangerous for her. And unlike the cholitas who came before her, Theresa can choose her own dream.”

More here.

Photo: Trevin Spencer/Only A Game
The cholitas luchadoras of El Alto. Angela La Folklorista is on the far right.

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