I don’t know why I got so involved in the Australian National football Team.
I was what I am totally the opposite now, an eurosnob didn’t follow the NSL (until Carlton SC came on the scene but that’s another story) and followed the VFL instead.
I came to Australia in 1974, right in the middle of Australia’s World Cup campaign. And I wasn’t that into football in Italy anyway. Of course I followed a team. Both my grandfather and my father were very keen AC Milan fans. Both of them were life members (AC Milan was created three years after my grandfather was born) and my father would tell me stories when in his youth he would be part of the group of fans travelling with the team across Italy and even digging snow off the pitch on occasions so a match could occur.
But I was hopeless in sports. I was a fat kid who was always picked last in teams at school, or even worse not picked at all and the teachers had to force one team to take me to the protests of ‘Oh not him!” from other kids. And in any case Italy was (and is) obsessed with the sport and I sort of rebelled against it. It was only the connection with my father that created a link, even went to San Siro with him as a child.
So coming to Australia the fact that it wasn’t a ‘football country’ didn’t really bother me. My father dismissed the local football and inferior and didn’t want to get involved with the local community anyway, so no APIA or Marconi. He wanted to be a middle class Australian, so we went to live in the white fence blandness of the North Shore.
But while I also was a eurosnob of sorts, the National Team somehow took my interest. I wasn’t really aware of the campaign for 1978 World Cup in Argentina (those 4 years were a blur, settling in a new country, learning English and at the end of it moving to Melbourne and doing my HSC). But by 1982 I was really in a ‘I want to belong to Australia’ mode. I felt comfortable in my new home in Melbourne and while was following the VFL (as it was then) not local football, the sport still resonated in my as the sport of my culture. Later I recognised that the sport of football provides a link to my heritage, to my family, to my childhood, even if I was hopeless at it and never really played it. And while perhaps I could not find that link in local teams, the national team could link my past with my present. The National team was representing my new country with a sport of my heritage and the emotional connections that entailed. So it became much more than just a sport.
I remember the first feeling of utter disappointment when New Zealand beat Australia 0-2 to progress in their World Cup qualifications and eliminate Australia.
And then of course the other failures (culminating in 1997). But the thing that galled me was how these results were met with an overall indifference amongst the population, but even worse how many were actually gleeful about it “ha ha Australian is shit at soccer”. The fact that there were Australians who were actually chortling about one of their national team losing astounded me, and proved how in many people’s eyes the sport was not part of the country’s make up, was something foreign, and somehow this made me feel alienated and foreign too.
Football in Australia was stuck in a rut. Then Crawford report arrived and the game was in a state of reform. Lowy got involved and whatever people think of him he got Hiddink and many of us believed that this was our time.
Even if we lost again I wanted to be there. At least I would be in a stadium full of depressed people like me, rather than alone or in indifference. And I wanted my father to be with me. After all he was the real reason why I had a link to football and I am sure he would have enjoyed a match with players of a calibre he would have approved.
The fact that we didn’t lose by heaps in Montevideo meant that at least we had a chance. I went to the newsagency near work to get a ticket (before the days of buying them online) and somehow I looked for omens. There were none. There were a couple of people before me buying tickets too, that is all.
My wife, my young son left for Sydney. I think it was Tuesday, but not sure. It would be a weekend away for my wife who couldn’t care less about the match (and sport in general) and my son who was too young to be involved. My parents were to join us later. I remember that I got really nice cheap accommodation in Stanmore I remember that the night before the match my parents and us had Chinese takeway in our room which is a really nice memory. I remember that the day of the match, we took the ferry to Manly and the weather was promising rain and my father and I bought some $2 ponchos just in case it rained at the match. All I remember is the tension, how we had lunch at some touristy fish place in Manly and I didn’t feel like eating.
Finally we took the ferry back to Circular Quay and I started to see people in green and gold, and also in the Uruguayan Celeste. It was time to go. I donned my green and gold beanie, which was knitted by my mom decades earlier. I looked absolutely ridiculous and my wife said that I shouldn’t be seen in public with that. Then there was confusion about which train to take to Homebush and the whole tension erupted. I hardly get angry but I was on the edge. “We are in Circular Quay and Homebush is a major station and we can’t find the fucking train?” All of my contingent look at me startled. Years later my mother would tell me that she had to fight hard not to laugh. She thought the sight of a grown man of 44 year old man with a green and gold tea cosy on his head going off in a train station was hilarious. Anyway we got a train to Central I think and We finally got on the train to the stadium.
The train was packed and hot. No place to sit and I was worried about my 80 years old father, and the fact that no one offered him a seat. I thought whether to ask someone but I think that at the end he would have been too proud to accept.
We finally arrive. There is a festive atmosphere. We get to our seats which were near one of the corners. There was a really vibe, you could feel the wave of eagerness coming from the crowd. The Australian national anthem is played. I sing wholeheartedly with thousands of other people. The Uruguayan anthem gets played and gets booed and I say to my father that that is not right. Just because the Australian one was booed in Montevideo it doesn’t mean that we should do the same. But I can sense that we had enough. Being ‘nice guys’ had got us nowhere. If going to the World Cup meant being nasty as well so be it.
I can’t remember much of the match. Except that Bresciano’s goal was at the other end. Sometimes when I am so far from the action I am not really sure that the goal has gone into the net and I rely on the reaction of the players and the crowd. We are even … and we’re at home. But the experience of the previous decades has shown that being hopeful is dangerous. I can remember the endless Uruguayan attacks and corners where just a brief distraction of an Australian defence would have unravelled all the dreams. Extra time. I think that if we go to penalties what a cruel way to go out, but how typical.
My recollection of the penalties is again vague. Except that they were again on the other side of the ground. I was dazed and confused I don’t know who can win where except that I rejoiced at all Schwarzer’s saves and Australia’s goals.
My father that while he enjoyed the match didn’t have the same emotional response. Cool as a cucumber after Zalayeta misses and Aloisi walks to the penalty spot. “Se l’Australia segna vince la partita” “If Australia scores they win” he just says, like that. With the same tone of voice as ‘pass me the salt’.
The feeling of when something good happens suddenly after stress is often what you don’t expect. Relief is the first thing I think I felt. I jumped up. There was pandemonium all around me which I think was replicated all over the stadium. Men’s at Work ‘DownUnder’ starts playing and here I am a 44 year old man in a funny beanie jumping up and down singing along. The experience was sufficient for my father. He didn’t have the emotional baggage that I carried with me for the past 30 years, he said to me that he was going home but it was fine for me to stay. Of course I wanted to stay I wanted to soak up the atmosphere as much as possible. He left and amongst the euphoria I felt somewhat guilty to let a 80 year old man go back to the city from Homebush on his own. “Non preoccupati” “Don’t worry” he says, and he leaves the joyous group and my ‘Man at work’. I see a man in an Uruguayan shirt leaving too. Instinctively without thinking I reach him and shake his hand. He seems to appreciate the gesture. To this day I wonder why I did that. Perhaps because it must be tough being an Uruguayan supporter amongst all the joyous mayhem.
The team leaves the ground. Time to go some stadium staff hover around, they want to go home even if some people don’t want to There is a huge crush at Homebush stadium a lady from a balcony above who looks like a staff member try to start a ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi!’ chant and was told quite unkindly that these were mot the Olympics. Train also packed but the mood is boyant but also tired. We are all exausted. People on the phone ringing friends “Mate..we are going to Germany, don’t know how we did it but we did…I am going there if it kills me…”
I arrive at Central and there is no direct train to Stanmore. It’s almost midnight now. I think I have to go to Wynyard then a train home. I get to the Lodge at 1am. It’s locked and I wasn’t expecting to be this late. I get to the back and call my wife’s names with those strange loud whispers thinking I may have to spend the night outside, fortunately she hears me and opens the door. I am sweaty and thirsty, but the shower is locked and only to be opened at 8. So have no choice to go to bed like that. But it doesn’t matter. Tonight at least, the sport of my childhood, is Australia’s sport.