MY SEAT at Telstra Stadium is as close to heaven as it is possible to be. Seat 29, aisle 624, row 42. Back row, bar none. If heaven is taken to be in the general direction of up, this is the top of the sports-watching world.The Signs Were All Pointing in The Right Direction
MY SEAT at Telstra Stadium is as close to heaven as it is possible to be. Seat 29, aisle 624, row 42. Back row, bar none. If heaven is taken to be in the general direction of up, this is the top of the sports-watching world.
By securing Uruguay as an opponent (as opposed to Chile, Colombia or Bolivia), the players avoided playing at altitude. But for the fans in row 42, we are going to have to manage our chants and singing and frantic concerns about Recoba’s left boot in rarefied climes. I hope we have the conditioning. I’m glad I’m not the nose-bleed type.
In the pre-match, I’m treated to an act of courage by a man who does not seem to have the conditioning.
He’s Drew, a heavy-set Scot, a thirtysomething who so far has set the standard in row 42 for passion and voice. He’s told us about singing, about the crowd becoming the 12th man on the field, and he’s set up camp next to the aluminium fire hose box on the back wall.
His willingness to push on despite the odds, occurs on his second ascent of Mount Aisle 624. Drew is carrying two fully-stacked beer trays – slowly negotiating the steepest stairs in world sport. I know that he’s struggling. The shoulders are aching, falling forward over the gut. The lactic acid is burning in the calves and thighs.
Halfway up, it doesn’t appear he’s going to make it. I draw up behind and ask him how he’s going. He stares at me, glassy eyed. “I’m gonna make it,” he said. “I’m gonna do it for the lads.”
Far, far below, noise billows from a crowd blooming like a field of canola. Mark Viduka asked for it, and Australia has delivered yellowly. At the pre-game microphone, John Travolta and Kelly Preston discuss planes and Qantas and John’s junior soccer career. Yes, he did evade tackles with some moves he later pulled out in Saturday Night Fever. Yes, he loves planes, particularly red and white ones.
A Qantas jet flies overhead and the Qantas choir sings I Still Call Australia Home. The crowd roars through it all, nervous, happy and scared. This is our night and 10 minutes of corporate banalities from one of Scientology’s higher operating thetans won’t spoil it.
Drew with the beer has no ears for Travolta. He looks at the pitch, to size up the Socceroos firing shots at Schwarzer in the warm-up, and then heads off again. Suddenly, I understand what I am witnessing. This man, this fat Scot in blue jeans and a white and yellow T-shirt is doing it for “the lads”. The boys. Our Australian boys. If he gets to the top of aisle 624 alive, it will be a sign.
At row 31, he pauses, and with trays outstretched, Christ-like, lowers chins to chest. As he rests, highlights of the 1974 team flash across the screen. A banner is raised. “Johnny Warren: 1943-2004 – You Told Us So”. I feel like crying. The masses are singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. In a day of fluctuating emotions (a random shout of “C’mon” in Hyde Park, stomach cramps at Aristotle’s Cafe in Oxford Street, an inexplicable urge to do some pre-match stretching exercises at Central Station, joy at finding a gold polyester shirt with “Von’s Inn” imprinted on the front in Crown Street), I’m finally reduced to tears. The guy with the beers in front of me doesn’t notice, resuming his pilgrimage, onwards and upwards. He’s not walking alone either.
By now, I’m convinced that the safe delivery of the beers will be the true indicator of the night’s result. Earlier, I’d placed my faith in our purchase of pastizzis on the way to the ground (Maltese food, Kevin Muscat is Maltese, Muscat scored the winner against Uruguay at the MCG) but suddenly that logic seems flimsy.
There’s a new talisman. If Drew gets there, so will we. The beers are wobbling in his hand. Left foot follows right. The journey from row 41 to row 42 is asphyxiatingly difficult. But he huffs and puffs and arrives. “Enjoy these ones lads. I got them for you.”
Later in the night, there’s another last step. One that teases and threatens and seems to take hours, as though prolonging the agony is part of the master plan. I ride all the different possibilities.
When Schwarzer saves the first, I barrack so hard I lose control, falling and jamming my hand on the hinge of the seat in front. I’m still nursing it when Viduka misses his shot, exhausted. There’s blood on the sleeve of my shirt. Oh God. Please don’t make this symbolic.
Then Schwarzer saves again and the back row launches itself into a scrum. One to go. I can’t look, but do. Expensive tickets, gotta look. I think of all the good this kick could do. C’mon Aloisi. Let Australia know that to love the greatest of all international sports isn’t a slap in the face to our own football codes. Give us some chicken tikka after a lifetime of meat pies. Let us be part of the greatest show on earth.
He hits it perfectly and starts running. In my mind at least, he may never stop.