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Having a Ball: How we finally fell in love with the world game

‘He nutmegged him! Archie nutmegged the Argentinian!’

The MCG crowd makes the sound a crowd makes when seventy odd thousand people laugh at the audacity of it all. Our Archie, Melbourne’s own Archie Thompson, has played the ball through the legs of an Argentine defender and run onto it. Nutmegged him. Those who don’t know the word will be learning it; if not in the moment then in the papers tomorrow, when football — the football most of the world knows as football — might once again nudge the front page.

John Vallese from Sunshine is sitting next to me, and smiles in disbelief. Like many of the lifelong fans, he refers to Socceroos games from decades past like tours of duty. We’re both in our thirties, but whereas I’m an Iran ’97, John is a Scotland ‘85. But like so many fans, new and old, we were both there for Uruguay 2005.

‘That one game in Sydney changed everything’ John says of the night the clouds parted, and a benevolent god sent a prophet with the unlikely name of Guus to lead a green and gold army out of the desert. ‘Hiddink changed it all. Now they actually pass and play properly and try to break down defences. To come here for a practice match and see this many people? I never would have believed it.’

Tonight, the clouds have organised themselves with the discipline of a Hiddink defence, and a light drizzle is falling, but the crowd is in an ebullient mood. Two girls in the next bay are wearing tiny shorts, gold bikini tops and mobile phone numbers drawn onto their backs. They demonstrate either an opportunistic flair for low cost advertising or a refusal to concede that Germany 2006, with its white hot football and European sun can’t be sustained for a friendly in Melbourne on a chilly Tuesday night.

It isn’t just any old friendly, and that has something to do with the strength of the Albicelestes squad. In particular, the presence of two superstars; Carlos Tevez and a teenage sensation called Lionel Messi. Messi, the kid who carries the millstone of being the ‘next Maradona’. Messi, whose tiny legs whirr like the wings on a hummingbird, and whose dominance for Barcelona and Argentina has earned him a transfer price of $250,000,000.

‘In a few years you’ll be saying you saw Lionel Messi live,’ John enthuses. Minutes later, Messi surges to the top of the penalty area, the ball stuck to his foot, pauses as the gold socks of Socceroo defenders loom like prison bars, feigns right, no escape, darts left, as elusive as a moth, and cannons his shot into the left upright. Had the ball gone in, it would have been a contender for best goal scored on Australian soil.

Rita  Zammit, who travelled to Germany with me last year, squeals with delight.

‘There’s this guy in the UK called Paul Potts who became famous on a reality show for doing a very good Nessun Dorma. Then Pavarotti died and we got to hear him sing it again. We’re seeing the soccer equivalent here. The Socceroos are Paul Potts. The Argentines are Pavarotti.’

Rita pauses, uncomfortable with this slight betrayal of her team. ‘Paul Potts is still pretty good.’

Indeed the Paul Pottses are playing valiantly, with A-League products like David Carney and Archie Thompson matching the output of experienced World Cup starters like Bresciano and Culina.

‘Is the game growing here?’ I ask John.

He answers by pointing at a row of kids in front, numbering them off like Von Trapps. ‘He’s soccer, she’s soccer. These two: soccer, soccer. These two are my nephews. Gabriel used to be AFL but is now soccer. Dominic still says he’s AFL, but I think that’s just until he thinks of a way of telling his dad … ‘

‘Ohhhhaagghhhhh!’

John is mid sentence, embroiled in family sporting politics when Mark Bresciano drops a coin on some crossbar pinball. His free kick dips onto the crossbar, hits Abbondanzieri in the back of the head, ricochets back to the crossbar, down to the keeper’s leg and then trickles wide of the upright. It’s an impossible sequence, one that Graham Arnold says that he’s never seen in 30 years of football. John doesn’t see it either, because I have him otherwise occupied yabbering into my microphone. I apologise profusely.

‘Oh well, that’s soccer,’ he says. ‘There’s always the replay’. We watch it and groan. It could so easily have gone in. A case could even be mounted to say the Socceroos were unlucky to lose.

Except we weren’t. The Socceroos played attractively and showed all the tenacity that was lacking in the group games at the Asia Cup. But there was an inevitability about the Argentinian goal when it came — a dangerous dipping free kick from Messi, finished with a clinical glancing header by Martin Demichelis. The Argentines didn’t seem surprised to be celebrating.

Approaching full time, Messi is subbed and the atmosphere is subdued until the scoreboard flashes up the attendance. Immediately the crowd roars, cheering itself as soccer crowds have tended to do in this period of resurgence. 70,171 on a cold Tuesday night. Not bad for a practice match.

***

If the World Cup last year explains the explosion of interest in the Socceroos, it only partly accounts for the fact that Melbourne Victory fans are cheering attendance figures too. The A-League is now in its third season, and crowd averages across the country are a respectable 15,000. Here in Melbourne, however, the numbers are double that, and for a regular season fixture against Sydney last season, more than 50,000 filled the Dome. Throw in league topping and premiership triumphs last season, and it’s success bordering on phenomenon.

On the morning before the Mariners game, I’m in the changing rooms, feeling strangely star struck given I only started hearing these names two and a half yeas ago. Allsopp, Vargas, Pantelidis, Brebner, Caceres. Then of course there are the Socceroo stars: Kevin Muscat, enforcer turned sporting ambassador for a city and Archie Thompson, our five goal Grand Final hero, back from dancing the nutmegger suite three days earlier.

‘Theo, Theeeee-o’ I sing to myself, recalling the terrace chant as I try to comprehend Michael Theoklitos’s thighs. He’s kicking the ball at young gun Mitchell Langerak who at 19 is judged by many as a Socceroo goalie in the making. But he doesn’t have Theo’s thighs, will never have Theo’s thighs. They are the thighs that propped up the Colossus of Rhodes, the sequoias that keep the Victory defence steady at the back. If the team plane ever goes down in the Andes, heaven forbid — its Number 1 has to be careful. The team could live out the winter on Theo’s thighs.

Coach Ernie Merrick calls us in for the team meeting. I say ‘us’, because I’m invited too. We watch selected video excerpts from the previous week’s match, and the instruction to the attacking midfield players is to play the ball in behind the last defender. The video is paused and released, while Merrick and assistant coach Aaron Healey point to the patchwork of holes, the myriad of possibilities that open up as a team presses forward. I glance to my right, where gun new signing, Leandro Love is sitting. He is Brazilian, with flair stamped all over him. I look at the Drogba dreads and a dazzling lobe-full of ear bling. He is being asked to do the team thing. I wonder whether Ernie would mind if I slip him a note that just reads ‘Go nuts Leandro. Take ‘em all on. You have a national stereotype to uphold.’

In fact it’s the Scottish born Merrick who punches out a national stereotype, at the expense of the Auld country. ‘We don’t sign full backs to kick in long balls. They play in Scotland, they don’t play in Australia.’ The players giggle, because even after thirty years in his adopted country, Ernie has lost little of his accent. ‘Although Scotland just beat France on the weekend,’ he continues quickly …’so maybe the Scots are the new power in world football …’

The players drown him out with their bellowing. ‘I was wondering how long that would take to come out,’ Muscat laughs.

***

It’s the job of media managers to sizzle with buzzwords and glow with smiles, but for Tony Ising, the Victory dream transcends mere occupation. The club quite literally was conceived on his notepad, his home computer during some dark moments at the end of 1997.

‘It was the weekend immediately following Australia’s elimination from the World Cup to Iran, and at the next National Soccer League (NSL) match at Optus Oval, the place was like a morgue. Completely depressing. For mine, that was the darkest hour. But everyone around at that time finally saw that throwing all the eggs at the World Cup basket wasn’t the answer, and that they really had to concentrate their efforts on making sure the national league stood on its own two feet.’

Ising went home and wrote a rough business plan for a new club. He called it Melbourne Victory. He had no financial backers, nothing more than an idea and a vision for a new soccer team for Melbourne with a broad base of appeal. It was an idea before its time, because with moderate crowds and disappointing levels of sponsorship, the NSL was hardly looking for new teams. ‘The plan sat on the shelf for six years,’ Ising explains. ‘To enter a new team in the old league would have been commercial suicide’.

But then along came Frank Lowy and a new start for Australian soccer. The A-League, modelled in part on the wildly successful Japanese J-League, was blueprinted, and suddenly there was a need for teams. Ising dusted off his plan, and with help from News Limited executive Alen Rados began knocking on doors. Eventually, Rados found a big name in Glenn Wheatley and deep pockets in the person of current chairman Geoff Lord. The Victory had its name, its colours and most importantly, its financial backer.

The first person signed to the football department was not a player, but a football operations manager. Nearly three years later, Gary Cole, a Socceroos Hall of Famer who scored 20 times for his country, stands in the centre of Telstra Dome next to Merrick, a defender’s bib slung over his torso, one which has thickened slightly since his playing days.

‘Is that a bib or a corset?’ Ising jibes, drawing a two fingered salute from Cole. Incidentally, the two fingered salute is the signature of chairman Geoff Lord, offered to the audience at every corporate function, although he spins it around into an altogether more Churchillian V.

‘I’d given up,’ a still corseted Cole explains after training. ‘And my old football mates had given up. When it was announced that the NSL was dead and that there was going to be a rebirth, people of my generation said that this was the last roll of the dice. If the A-League doesn’t work, then when is it ever going to work?’

I ask Cole why it did work this time. Like most people, he credits the one team one town philosophy, and also the absence of an ethnic stamp on the Victory.

‘It’s interesting because football’s traditions in Australia are based in the ethnicity, and without it the sport could never have got to where it was. When I played for Heidelberg, I played in front of 15,000 people … I’m so proud of playing for Heidelberg and Preston and those ethnic clubs, because they are the foundation, but the game couldn’t go to where it is now. And anyone who doesn’t see that has got his head in the sand.’

Training concludes, and on the sidelines, two girls loudly proclaim that they are Rodrigo Vargas myspace friends. ‘Are you going to the Chilean festival?’ they squeal as their hero wanders over for some post training photos. Vargas, the softly spoken son of a chicken proprietor at Queen Victoria market, confesses that he will miss the festival because he has a date with the Mariners. I ask him whether he eats a lot chicken. ‘Probably five nights a week,’ he says. ‘We love the chicken, springtime kangaroo, everything.’

‘You’re a gun, Love’ a group of five young fans yell in the direction of the new Brazilian signing. Daniel, Anthony, Joey, Joey, and Frankie. They’re aged 11 to 13, and they’ve made their own way to the open training. Daniel screams ‘Archie! Archie!’ as the team gathers at the fence. ‘Do you remember me from Socceroos training?’

‘Of course I do mate,’ Archie replies. The same congenial Archie who threw his boots into the crowd after every home game in the team’s struggling first year. None of the hundred or so gathered fans leave without a signature from their favourite players. These are new local idols in an international game.

***

Kaz Patafta is 18 and has never worn this much makeup. He is on loan from Portuguese giant Benfica and a glossy photo shoot is still something of a novelty. ‘They tend to go for the Portuguese boys over there,’ he says.

I ask Patafta how he was recruited to the Victory. Archie Thompson, very much Mr Dapper in his pale suit and Gene Kelly hat, answers for him.

‘Don’t you know the story? Ernie was chatting up his missus.’

The ability to lure a player of Patafta’s ability back to Melbourne is one of Archie’s signposts that the game is getting healthier in Australia. I press him for the other four. ‘Sitting down in a cinema and seeing a 90 second A-League ad; 50,000 people at a regular season match; 22,000 members for the Victory;  and the Asian Champions League, which we’ve qualified for in 2008’.

In the longer term, Thompson is also excited about the purpose built football stadium in the Olympic Park precinct, and the recently mooted idea that Australia might bid to host a World Cup.

I ask him whether the support from the public feels as strong here as it did in Europe, where he played mainly in Belgium.

‘About the same really …It’s great now. I love it when I’m driving and I see someone has a Melbourne Victory sticker on their car. I get excited about that. I also get excited when I see the number of people walking across the bridge and into Telstra Stadium. It’s just turning into something.’

Archie delivers some foot tricks for the camera and the photographer calls on Kevin Muscat. The skipper has also donned a suit, and with his shaved head and piercing eyes looks like the hard man in a Guy Ritchie film. Muscat also feels the surge in momentum for his sport.

‘For me the penny dropped when tickets went on sale for the Grand Final. You’re looking at fifty-five thousand tickets, and it came on the radio that they were sold out in three hours. That’s when it really struck home to me, that as a team and a code we’d made great strides.’

Muscat is equally sure that this is not a passing fad, and that Melbourne is a genuine soccer town. That realisation was etched in stone on the night he scored the winner at the MCG against Uruguay in 2001, in a qualification campaign that would derail so spectacularly a week later.

‘We’d won the match and it was 2.30 in the morning. I was with Craig Moore and we couldn’t sleep, so we went for a walk. We got to the food court at the casino, and turned the corner, and as we walked through, the whole food court stood up and gave us a standing ovation. I’d never seen the sport get recognition before, but they just all stood up and clapped. And that made me realise that if we got our act together as a code, there were opportunities.’

The photographer calls Muscat in front of the lens. ‘Put your hands behind your back, Kevin, put pressure on your hip. We’ll do this. Then we’ll do some laughing.’

He snaps away, and then finishes with a series where the captain has a ball for a head. Muscat jokes that these are the best ones, the ones where he has no face.

I quietly wonder if the photographer knows Kevin Muscat, has seen him play. I think about offering some advice. Play the safe route. Include Kevin’s face.

***

The theatrically named Hamlet Armenian scores the first goal for the Whittlesea Zebras against Green Gully and a dozen dancing youths light up Bob Jane Stadium with song.

‘Hamlet Arm-en-ian, Hamlet Arm-en-ian’

The tune is operatic and I should know it, although years of television watching has reduced it to just ‘that Leggos ad’. Hamlet himself sprints joyously towards his supporter group, and I pray that as part of his celebration he will raise a human skull aloft. To score, perchance to dream.

Whittlesea, in its Juventus strip, flies its ethnic colours proudly. Its opponent in this final, Green Gully, is historically tied to the Maltese community. Indeed most of the Victorian Premier League (VPL) clubs are linked at least historically to an ethnic community.

I’m watching the game with Ian Syson, a football fan and writer, and the founder of Libero Press, Australia’s first exclusively-football publishing house.  It would be wrong to call Syson a Victory hater – he has after all attended nearly every home game – but his first love is the VPL and in particular, South Melbourne, formerly South Melbourne Hellas. Syson clings to a shrinking hope that South might be admitted to the A-League as a second Melbourne-based team.

‘The biggest problem for football under the old structure was corruption at upper levels. I think Soccer Australia was a basket case for a very long time, and the game was never going to get anywhere until changes were made. But I think the new FFA has thrown the baby out with the bathwater with this policy of non-ethnic teams.’

I mention to Syson that almost everyone in the city would disagree with him, given the Victory’s current popularity and the success of the one city one team policy. Syson nods ruefully.

‘I think the A-League is missing a lot of people who don’t go from some clubs in Melbourne because they feel that the process of ethnic cleansing hurt them. Hurt their history. Hurt their club. South Melbourne is the most successful club in the history of Australian football, and yet was told, ‘need not apply’. Whether that decision was right or wrong, and I think it was wrong, you can see why people were hurt by the A-League … What would have happened if we had that World Cup success and the NSL had still been happening? What would have happened to the NSL?’

The debate around ethnicity centres around violence, and whether football under the old NSL structure was a lightning rod for ethnic clashes. Syson says that he has seen over eighty South games at Bob Jane stadium, and only twice has he seen punches thrown, although he did miss a particularly controversial South versus Preston game. He is convinced that violence at soccer matches is grossly over-reported.

‘Soccer was always the game that threatened the comfortable hegemony of Australian sport. If soccer gets anywhere, it starts to eat into rugby league and it starts to eat into Australian Rules. So there’s a vested interest in linking ethnic disaffection with soccer.’

For his Das Libero website, Syson is researching the way crowd violence is reported. It’s his theory that the drunken cricket lout is characterised as an isolated idiot, but the drunken soccer lout is immediately an ultra nationalist.

‘I’m not an apologist for people pursuing their nationalist agendas,’ Syson concludes. ‘At the pre-season practice match (between South and Victory) the actions of a couple of so-called South supporters sickened me. But I do want to make sure people know what we’re talking about when we say violence. That we’re comparing apples with apples.’

In extra time, Whittlesea’s Steve Martin taps home the winner, and the majority of the 700 odd fans go wild.

‘Two one to the Whittlesea’ sing the vocal Zebras supporter group celebrating behind the goal, before rounding out with an a cappella version of Seven Nation Army. They are the FDZ, and they laughingly describe themselves as ‘ultras’ because the twelve of them are being guarded by two security guards.

Jason, a Whittlesea local, says the Zebras are his number one passion. ‘I’ve been following them for eight years, and that’s where my heart lies. I’m in the minority though. These boys prefer the Victory. They watch the Zebras to have an interest in the off-season.’

I ask Jason whether a club like South Melbourne should be admitted to the A-League.

‘I would,’ he says. ‘You can’t make another plastic club. There are rumours of the Gold Coast Galaxy … for heaven’s sake …’

But his friends are unanimous in their disagreement. ‘One team, one city works’ says Ivo, who has Bulgarian heritage. ‘And so does the lack of ethnicity. Soccer violence is over reported, but in the NSL days, there was quite a lot of ethnic friction involved. All that’s been taken out and you can see the difference. The crowd numbers, people taking their families, lots of kids.’

The final whistle blows, and after a brief celebration, there’s a collective rush for the tram to take us to the Victory game. I’m running with Ian Syson and his ten year old son, Dan. We make the tram, and Dan removes his blue and white South Melbourne shirt and replaces it with the navy, white and silver of the Victory. His father smiles. ‘He might wear that, but you still want to play for South, don’t you Dan?’

***

‘We’re North end

We’re north end

We’re north end over here.’

The north terrace fans sing this song every home game, and the south terrace answers, like birds answering the call of a mate. One of the lovely quirks of this tradition is that it was established at Olympic Park, where the north terrace fans actually sat at the northern end. At Telstra Dome, they sit at the southern or Coventry end. Nevertheless, the ritual continues, unadjusted: the north terrace fans declaring their northness from the south. The south terrace fans declaring their southness from the north.

The Victory is in the middle of a home goal drought, and it doesn’t break against Central Coast. It isn’t a bad game though, and the team has a flush of chances in the last ten minutes. When the final whistle blows we are out of our seats. If Archie hadn’t been brought down deliberately in the last few minutes, he would have been clean through, one-on-one with the keeper. The lower level retractable seating shake with the injustice of it all. Rita Zammit is red with excitement.

‘This is what football is about, frustration, disappointment, excitement. I mean the adrenaline was pumping, even if there was no score … The state of football? There were 27,000 people here on a Sunday night. Where would we have been three years ago?’

Archie Thompson walks slowly towards us and kicks a ball into the crowd. A kid called Anthony, 12, who has ‘Go Archie’ painted on his cheeks, tells the same story with his lungs.

Rita swoons in adoration. ‘If you ask people in Melbourne who you know in football, it’s no longer Neill or Bresciano, it’s Archie Thompson. I mean you ask the kids. It’s Archie this, Archie that. That’s a big step. We finally have a local face of football in this town, and his name is Archie Thompson. We’ve come a long way.’

Having a Ball