Having missed last July’s Men’s European Roller Derby Championships at the same venue, I headed to Birmingham’s Futsal Arena for the inaugural Men’s Roller Derby World Cup not quite knowing what to expect. As it turned out, what I should have expected was large crowds, great atmosphere, bathroom queues, new favourite teams and skaters, more lycra than I've ever seen in one place, and singing. Lots of singing. Not to mention, of course, some top quality derby action across the full weekend.
The start of the tournament wasn't without its problems, as a broken barcode scanner led to delays in allowing fans into the arena, but these were dealt with quickly and professionally by the event staff. With skaters being allocated team spaces away from the main action, it was up to the fans to pick the best vantage points to watch the opening ceremony. Both tracks had plenty of seating, with bleachers and chairs laid out, but as is usually the case, the floor space seemed to be most popular. After hearing tales from the Euros, I went armed with everything I thought I’d need apart from one essential - a cushion, which would prove to be a bad mistake over the course of a weekend sitting on cold, hard floors. After the opening ceremony, in which each of the fifteen teams was introduced and welcomed by the crowd, the tournament kicked off with a bout between England and Argentina. Despite a partisan crowd, Argentina, who had travelled with just eight skaters, didn't take long to impress with their play. Day one was made up of round robin play, half hour bouts with no stoppages for time-outs, and bouts were staggered throughout the day on both tracks. It was easy to move between the two areas and possible to catch most of every bout, if you could find space to watch from.
There chiefly as a Power of Scotland supporter, most of the day was centred around finding the best viewing spots for their bouts. The first match-up against Japan was particularly exciting as they were an unknown quantity prior to the tournament. It soon became apparent that, although skilled skaters, their derby knowledge, especially when it came to rules, wasn't up to the same standard. Their exciting play and enthusiasm endeared the team to the crowd and they enjoyed lots of support throughout the weekend. Scotland’s next bout against Belgium was a much tighter, tenser affair, in which Scotland had to come back from an almost forty point deficit to overcome the Belgians in the last ten minutes. The final bout against the experienced Canadian team went as expected, although the score wouldn’t have been obvious listening to the cheers and support from the many Scottish supporters in the crowd.
Overall, day one was a great success, almost everything ran to time, queues for food and bathrooms were under control (particularly for the surprisingly clean portaloos outside) and the atmosphere throughout the day was fantastic.
Day two saw the start of the knockout stages and the move to traditional hour-long bouts. This meant that bouts were running concurrently but it was still possible to move easily between tracks to see the action on both. It also led to the first real delays and overruns of the tournament, but for the most part, these were efficiently dealt with and bouts generally started on time.
For the PoS supporters in the crowd, day two was all about the bout against the pre-tournament favourites, Team USA. After two bouts the previous day in which they had given up less than twenty points altogether, the feeling was that any points against them would do. For an hour or two before the bout, PoS supporters could be seen filling up spaces around the track, easy to spot with an abundance of face paint, Saltires and tartan. Songsheets had been handed out the previous day with a selection of chants and songs, and the crowd put them to good use. The crowd before and during the bout was probably the noisiest of the weekend - apparently a few Team USA skaters commented afterwards on the “wall of noise” coming at them on track - not least when it came to the national anthems. As at most sporting events, the singing of Flower of Scotland raised the roof and was a genuine hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment. The support from the crowd was incredible from the start - after all, everyone loves an underdog - and every jammer making it out of the pack was greeted with a massive roar. It took until midway through the second half for Scotland to make the breakthrough to get some points on the scoreboard but it was definitely worth waiting for. I’m not sure that I've ever experienced anything quite like the last quarter of the bout as Scotland went on to surpass expectations and score forty points, and by the final four whistles, the team and the crowd were celebrating like they had won the tournament. I’m sure that more happened that day but it was all a blur after that!
By the start of day three, it seemed that a bit of derby fatigue had set in, as the early bouts weren't as well attended. Several of the later scheduled bouts had been brought forward to compensate for the lack of light later in the day, which meant more of an overlap than originally planned. With the final set as Team England versus Team USA, the track the final was scheduled for began to fill up hours in advance, leaving the bouts on the other track to be played out to small audiences. For a neutral, probably the most tense and exciting bout to watch was the Plate final between the Wizards of Aus and Team Wales. Hard-fought and close throughout, the bout came down to the final jam, with the Wizards of Aus finally triumphing 201-200.
All traces of derby fatigue had disappeared by the time of the final, with every seat taken and spectators standing several rows deep at the back. As expected, the crowd was heavily in favour of Team England, but the skill displayed by Team USA was enough to ensure that they got their share of support, although perhaps the biggest cheer of the afternoon came when an Argentinean skater took the mic during half time to propose to his girlfriend (thankfully, she said yes). After the inevitable conclusion to the final, each team had a final chance to get back on track (albeit without skates on) for the closing ceremony, which also gave the spectators the opportunity to show their appreciation for the contribution that each and every skater had made to the success of the weekend.
Overall, from a fan’s point of view, the first ever Men’s Roller Derby World Cup was a great success. Facilities in the arena, while not ideal, were sufficient (although I have it on good authority that the men’s toilets were particularly unpleasant by the end of the weekend). The general atmosphere throughout the tournament was fantastic, the spectators giving great support to all of the teams there. The spirit of the weekend was summed up for me in one act - a collection from the crowd of over £1,000 to help the Argentinean team with their expenses. Although finishing joint seventh and fifteenth respectively, I think that Argentina and Japan were the teams of the tournament. Argentina in particular impressed everyone with their skill and determination, and were unlucky to be forced to forfeit their bout against France due to being left with three players after five foul outs, and the general consensus is that Japan will be a team to watch at the next World Cup. Speaking of which, when and where is it, and can I book my tickets now?