This is chapter 2 of Australia United. Given we are playing Japan tonight, and this was the best day of my sports watching life, here it is again.
Kaiserslautern began with a pre-dawn alarm, nine and a half hours before kick-off in Australia’s first World Cup finals match for 32 years. Even this early, some of the fans were quite overcome, the corridors filled with a common refrain.
‘This is the day I’ve been waiting for all my life,’ I heard as I left room 503. I felt like shadow boxing so I did. Another Aussie fan walked out and caught me playing Rocky. She waved. We were all excited.
Inside the lift, optimism was tempered by a sense of gravitas. ‘This is it,’ said a man wearing a green novelty football pitch on his head. He was speaking to friend also wearing green novelty football pitch on his head. ‘Good luck,’ the friend said, and they fell into a hug. ‘Good luck,’ I offered. Given we’d never met before we went for handshakes rather than the fully-blown embrace. ‘Stay strong,’ first pitch-head intoned earnestly. ‘We can do it.’ Nine hours to kick off.
Others in the breakfast room had been following the Socceroos longer than I had. The lines on their faces and the credibility-enhanced old-school shirts on their backs proved that much. But since Iran 1997, the Socceroos quest to qualify for the World Cup finals had been my number one sporting obsession. I’d travelled to Uruguay and Sydney. I’d sat through horribly unbalanced Oceania group games. I’d written articles for Melbourne’s morning broadsheet, The Age, denouncing the won (and then lost) full spot for the Oceania confederation and arguing for our chance to fight it out as part of Asia. When FIFA had whipped the spot away again — our spot —I felt sick. No, Oceania didn’t deserve that spot, but nothing was as unjust as the one off do-or-die fifth place in South America maelstrom. But we’d emerged from it, victorious in the face of a category five Los Celestes cyclone, and now it was THE DAY, the day so many had claimed as “the best day of our lives”. The day we’d dreamed about. In my dreams, I had skipped mundane details like breakfast. Had it been part of my fantasy, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed the post-dawn repast would be called frühstück.
After a frühstück not cooked by Frank Farina, we hit the streets as a golden stream, hundreds strong, flowing, singing, surging towards the local Frankfurt S-bahn station.
On the way, we painted footpaths and escalators golden, or in my case a fairly alarming shade of daffodil. I was wearing a hideous, skin-tight polyester yellow American football-style shirt, with the words ‘Von’s Inn,917 East River Road, Grand Island’ flowing across the chest in lurid green. Even though I had an official Socceroo jersey back in my case, I felt compelled to go with this hideously yellow advertisement for Von for the simple reason that I’d picked it up in a second hand shop on the afternoon of the Uruguay game. Hideously Yellow Von had successfully dragged me through the trauma of the penalty shootout that night so it was getting another start today.
Rationally, I’m willing to concede that superstitions are stupid, that what I do has no impact on what people who really matter do. My choice of shirt, even if such were made known to Jason Culina, would not allow him to run faster. My rabid fear of putting the Mozz on the boys when predicting good results is of course ridiculously arrogant, in that it assumes that by merely speaking, or even thinking, I can affect such vagaries as Craig Moore’s judgment on a slide tackle. Still, I can’t help it. In my ultimate powerlessness, I want to trick myself into feeling I can at least do something. And believe me, I do a good job. Most of the time, I can pretend that I’m actually making a difference. It’s sort of pathetic, but given I’m rational on important things such as seatbelts in cars and wearing sunscreen, I think I should be allowed the odd superstitious indulgence.
Across the carriages, other fans had their own Hideously Yellow Von equivalents, no doubt having convinced themselves, as I had, that they can make a difference. Thomas Zammit was also wearing his exact November outfit ─ blue jeans and two Aussie tops. The only problem was, the temperature in Sydney had been mid-teens, whereas the forecast for Kasierslautern was 35˚. Even at this time of the morning, I could see the signs of overheating shining across Tom’s forehead.
‘I don’t care,’ Tom shrugged stoically. ‘I don’t mind being hot. I’m not taking off either layer.’ What made this all the more impressive, was that in terms of absorbing hits for the team, Tom had already done his bit. The previous day, in Frankfurt’s old city, the very same official Socceroos shirt he was now wearing had been shat on from above by one of Frankfurt’s greediest birds, a moment that had Rita shrieking ‘It’s good luck, it’s good luck! It means we’re going to win!’
Tom had been less sure, believing that bird shit equals good luck was nothing more than positive spin dreamed up by some Pollyanna-type unable to accept the raw stinking truth about good things being good things, and bird shit being bird shit. But sitting on the Aussie Express on the way to Kaiserslautern, he was pulling his own superstitious weight. Not only was he enduring a stupidly hot continuity of outfit, he also had Garfield.
‘My Nanno Charlie gave it to me at the airport. He’s had major life-saving operations, and always keeps Garfield at his bedside.It’s got him through a few tough times. When I play a soccer game, he gets me to touch it before the start of the game. So when he was saying goodbye at the airport, he handed over Garfield.’
Rufus from Sydney was doing superstition by subtraction. He was not wearing a brown corduroy hat.
‘I wore it to the Confederations Cup,’ he said, ‘and we lost both games. So I’ve left it back in the hotel room.’
The search for assistance was all around us. We met an inflatable rock wallaby named Skippy, and a lucky Snoopy who was surprisingly not called Snoopy but Spike. As we rattled across the Rhine at Mainz, I met the red-bearded Dawson brothers from Sydney, who were quickly dubbed the Groundskeepers Willie, after the red-bearded cartoon character on The Simpsons. Mark Dawson, who if anything, was slightly more Groundskeeper Willie-ish than his older brother Peter, produced a crocodile tooth from around his neck.
‘I’ve worn this for every game I’ve seen Australia play and win. From Uruguay last year, going back to Argentina in the World Youth Cup. I got it in New Guinea when I was nine. A mate of the old man’s carved it for me. I bite on the thing when the boys are taking a kick.’
Groundskeeper Willie-Mark clamped down on it now and with a mouthful of tooth, introduced me to his brother, Groundskeeper Willie-Peter. They both had defence force backgrounds, and Groundskeeper Willie-Peter had taken a serious physical risk in deciding to come. He had suffered some vascular difficulties over the past year and, with painful varicose veins in his legs, he had been instructed by his doctor to stay home. Groundskeeper Willie-Mark explained that it was never really an option.
‘We’ve been promising ourselves since last time they made it that we’d go next time. I was twelve in 1974. It’s justification. Justification. It means we’re here with the rest of the world. We’re not pretending like we were at the Rugby World Cup, we’re not pretending like we were at the Olympics. Anyone can win at tiddly-winks. This is actually a game that means shit to people. Everywhere on the planet this means something.’
His blue eyes sparkled with anticipation.‘And today, we’re going to win.’
A Japanese television crew wobbled into our carriage and asked us the question, ‘what is football?’ I weighed my answer, wondering if I should offer some chin-stroking pontification on the Australian politics of the word ‘football’ – how four codes were squabbling over it as though embroiled in a neighbour-to-neighbour fence dispute.
But there’s a time and a place for that debate and it’s surely not when you’re an hour from a World Cup venue, on a train full of round ball fans. The Japanese interviewer had felt the air, and wanted something transcendent. He gazed at us, urging one of us to pull out something special, like the much-quoted line of the existentialist Frenchman from Algeria, Albert Camus: ‘In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team’; or Nick Hornby’s lovely quote in ‘Fever Pitch’ on fandom as a means of escaping real life ─ ‘Who wants to be stuck with who they are all the time?’
I genuinely think I was on the verge of something, a memorable, pithy aphorism that traversed notions of nationalism and the idea of football as a sort of sporting Esperanto when suddenly the on-board sound system kicked in. ‘Living Next Door to Alice’ was being played at serious volume. I was going to have to work hard to make the six o’clock news in Tokyo.
‘Football is the best international representation of sport… ‘
‘Alice! Alice! Who the fuck is Alice!’
‘And it’s never better than…um … than at The World Cup … ’
I was gone. All I could think was that somebody, somewhere had to get used to not living next door to Alice. Rita buttered up well, describing football as her heritage, her reason for getting out of bed in the impossibly early morning, and then did us all the favour of asking Kenji, the Japanese cameraman, what football meant to him.
‘I love football because football is very similar to life,’ Kenji said. ‘Because just like life, you have to take care about the very short-term future, and then that passes to the next future, and then the future after that.’
The whole cabin nodded, processing a sentence that had wafted across us like a Stephen Hawking thesis. Eventually, I asked Kenji whether he thought there were differences between the way the Japanese and the Australians played football.
‘The Japanese think too much. Australia is much more playing with feeling, with heart.’
Kenji had barely finished his sentence before a conga line of Aussies emerged through the glass door of the carriage. ‘Sushi, sushi, sushi train … sushi train, sushi train’ they sang as they snaked joyfully past our cabin. Maybe Kenji was right. From the look of them, they were living for the short-term, with no notion of incremental successive futures. They were just being the best sushi train they could be.
A day that is a contender for “best of life” wants to have a pretty good middle section, and Kaiserslautern started delivering right from the first step off the train. We disembarked as a mob into a mob, and although mobs sometimes get a bad rap, this one was friendly, and singing in the way that only mobs can. Apart from a brief hiatus in the train cabins, we had been singing, chanting, and howling pretty much since we left the hotel. We weren’t about to stop now.
‘Aus-sie … Aus-sie Aus-sie Aus-sie’ we boomed in the acoustically impressive echo-chamber of the station platform. It was pointedly not the ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’ a chant that would be joyously absent from the supporters’ song book for practically the entire World Cup. Instead it was an adaptation of the old ‘Olé …Olé Olé Olé’. Yes it was simple, and yes it was derivative, but it had notes, and didn’t require some Aussie Aussie Aussie wanker to mount a rostrum, and demand noise in the form of grunted ois. Even more excitingly, there was some variety on the song front, and as we snaked our way from the station to the town centre pedestrian zone, the golden throng veered from ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to ‘Skippy’ to Elton John’s Crocodile Rock morphed into ‘Aus-stray-lee-aaaaa, la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaa’. It seemed we were standing at the precipice of a new, more musical barracking era.
The Aussie choir had its ugly moments too. A group of supporters grabbed hold of the inflammatory English ‘Ten German Bombers’ song, which England coach Sven Goran Ericsson personally requested be ditched for the tournament, and adapted it to ‘Three Kamikazes in the sky’.
The tune is ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’ and in verse one, we learn at considerable length that there were three kamikazes in the sky. Then the Royal Aussie Air Force arrives to shoot one down, so that there are two kamikazes in the sky. Then it drops to one kamikaze; you can see it’s just another version of Ten Green Bottles but downgraded to be racially provocative. The same group of Aussie yobs also served up the ‘I’d rather be a convict than a Jap’ ─ again an English rip-off, but one that lacked for something given the Japanese fans were quietly going about their business, and hadn’t called us convicts to begin with.
But these were some of the few hiccups for what was generally a happy, enthusiastic, multitudinous, witty choir. It was the tournament where the dinky-di football fans taught the newcomers to sing. The reality is that singing is not a big part of Australian sport. In cricket, it may be that in the game’s gentlemanly traditions, singing was seen as boisterous, rowdy behaviour that simply ‘wasn’t cricket’. The Barmy Army is in the process of turning that on its head. In Aussie rules footy, it’s almost completely absent ─ maybe because the grounds are bigger, and so don’t lend themselves to the intimate act of singing. Maybe it’s because the integration of two sets of fans, as at AFL grounds, dissolves the potential of choirs gathering. Maybe it’s because the thrill-a-minute, wham-bam action of Aussie Rules doesn’t sit well with bursting into song, something which flourishes in a lull. As for rugby, it does have singing – the Welsh, Scots and English are particularly strong of voice – but it tends to be old standards sung boisterously at the start of games like Land of Our Fathers or Scotland the Brave.
Football is the code where singing thrives before after and during games, and where the song book is vast and ever-changing. It’s not, as many heathens claim, because the game is boring and there’s nothing else to do. It’s more that between the intense but often sporadic climactic highs and cathartic lows ─ there is down time. Time to absorb the rhythm of the game. Time to study the patterns the players make in position or with the ball as they strive for advantage. Time to fear. Time to fret. And certainly, time to sing.
Kaiserslautern was easy to love. For starters, it’s a great word to say ─ the locals put the accent on the ‘slough’ part of the word, (possibly to deflect attention from the ‘Kaiser’ bit, possibly for the simple love of the ‘slough’). With a centrally located, beautifully cobbled Old City (Altstadt) within the town’s boundaries, and a population of 100,000 it was small enough to be engulfed by the visiting fans.
Even by 11am, the main pedestrian street was so packed that anything quicker than an amble was impossible. And so we ambled, snapping photos of the svelte Japanese woman in the spectacular flowing blue and white kimono, and the not so svelte Australian man with the stuffed bra and the Dame Edna wig. On either side of the street, the locals had set up a long row of white tents and the smell of pork and the mist of barbecue betrayed the culinary emphasis of the day. We were in south-west Germany in the Bundesland of Rhinehard-Pfalz, and never mind that the French border was less than an hour’s drive away. In Kaiserslautern, even though the town was named after a Roman Emperor, this day the sausage was king.
The beer was flowing too, but despite a sense of elation and a day that was already nudging thirty degrees, I resolved to wait a few hours. Basically, I didn’t trust myself. The further we traipsed down the pedestrian mall, the better the party seemed to be, and I was worried that with four hours to go until kickoff, early drinking might lead to later drinking which could possibly jeopardize a lasting memory of the game, or even worse, cause a frantic mid-match toilet stop. And for anyone who has read Roddy Doyle’s brilliant sporting essay on Ireland’s passage through the 1990 World Cup, ‘The Beautiful Republic’ (contained in ‘My Favourite Year, published by Phoenix, edited by Nick Horby) it contains a great sporting truth:
‘We’d discovered this years ago. When one of us went to the toilet, a goal was scored; not always, but it was frightening how often it happened.’
In 1990, with his head against the tiles of a Dublin Pub, Roddy Doyle scores the equaliser for Ireland against England, even if the history books say it was former Everton left-winger Kevin Sheedy (no, not the former Richmond back-pocket plumber) who scored Ireland’s first ever goal in a World Cup finals. Given I was already doing my omen work with Hideously Yellow Von, I wanted to see the goals, enjoy the glorious agony of the full ninety minutes.
One of the drawbacks of not drinking, however, is that it’s much more annoying when people throw beer on your head, and that was very much the case down at the Fritz-Walter Stammtisch, an improvised bar and outdoor music venue that had been set up in front of the oldest church in Kaiserslautern, a patch the Aussies dubbed “Burger King corner”. This was the epicenter of the pre-match party, visible from three blocks away as a mosh pit of Australiana, and a place where you could catch up with hits from home, such as Hunters and Collectors’ ‘Holy Grail’ , Slim Dusty’s ‘Pub With No Beer’ and The Choirboys’ ‘Run to Paradise’. The boys (and it was mainly boys in the mosh pit’s hot pumping heart) were celebrating the high notes with some fairly erratic cup work.
There’s something about football that lends itself to externalised optimism. In the flush of a big tournament, everyone will say that their team is going to win ─ unless its playing Brazil, in which case it’s at least going to draw.
It’s because goals are so difficult to score, which means that the gap between two teams of vastly different abilities, at least in the optimistic mind, can still be closed down. The first round game between Sweden and Trinidad and Tobago was a perfect case in point. The Swedes were clearly superior, possibly by as many as three or four goals, and yet with the Trinidadian keeper Shaka Hislop strung across the goal on a string of elastic, a 10-0-0 structure, and Sweden’s Zlatan Ibramovich spraying his shots, nil-all became a tournament rattling reality. For the World Cup minnows, it was a miracle to justify miraculous hope – not just for T & T, but for all of us.
I interviewed hundreds of people in Germany, and the only person I spoke to at the entire World Cup who predicted a loss for the team he was supporting, was me. It’s not that I wasn’t barracking with all my heart for the Socceroos. It’s just that I have a problem with the Mozz. I fear it, worship it, loathe it, am controlled by it. For those unfamiliar with the Mozz, think of it as something akin to The Force in the Star Wars movies. Invisible, omniscient, vindictive, vigilant. Some incorrectly refer to it as ‘the Mocca’ (which just makes the Mozz angrier), others as Murphy’s or Sod’s law. What the Mozz does is inhabit the ether of the entire Universe (try to stay with the science here) wafting around, waiting for the faintest murmur of expressed opinion. Then It will act, swooping down, striking hard, possessing any relevant animal vegetable or mineral, and transforming the result to the opposite ─ usually one that is profoundly shit.
Here is a list of notable occasions where the unwary have been struck down by the Mozz over the course of the last century – (from the Mozz bible, ‘I Wish I Hadn’t Said That’, Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, Harper Collins Publishers, 2000). I’ve listed the top three, in 3-2-1 order.
Three votes: ‘I believe it is peace for our time … go home and get a quiet night’s sleep.’ ─ Neville Chamberlin, Prime Minister of Great Britain, September 30, 1938, after friendly discussions with the German Chancellor, A. Hitler.
Two votes: ‘One hundred years from now it is very likely that of (Mark) Twain’s works ‘The Jumping Frog’ alone with be remembered.’ ─ Harrry Thurston Peck, editor of ‘The Bookman’, January 1901.
One vote: ‘The singer will have to go,’ Eric Eastern, new manager of The Rolling Stones, in a remark to partner Andrew Oldham, assessing Mick Jagger’s value to the group, c1963.
While the Mozz doesn’t mind interfering in such affairs as these, for recreation it appears to enjoy nothing more than to kick back on some inter-galactic couch and mess with sports fans. So it was that when I was invited onto a panel called ‘World Cup Corner’ for the FairfaxDigital online forum, I played it safe with the Mozz, and tipped a one-nil loss to Japan. My co-hosts Ian Syson and Jason Steger both predicted narrow victories for the Socceroos, but I was happy taking on the Mozz placatory role. Doing my bit for Guus and country.
The problem though was explaining all this to Socceroos fans in Kaiserslautern when they asked me whether I thought the boys could win. With the songs and the throngs, with the most electrifying pre-game atmosphere I’d ever been a part of, the temptation was to throw the Mozz away, to let my guard down and scream ‘Aussies two-nil!’ But I had to be strong. The next future, Kenji’s next future, our next future, might be depending on me.
Eve approached with the apple just after we’d passed through security. She came in the form of Steve and Nick from Sydney. Earlier, I’d seen them prevail 6-4 in a classic game of table football (or foozball) against two Japanese opponents, thanks to what they described as ‘some high pressure attacking and defensive efforts’. They’d claimed the win as an omen, and said the ratio would be maintained for the real thing in an hour’s time.
‘So that’s either 3-2 or 12-8 to the Socceroos,’ Nick said without cracking a smile. ‘What about you Tony, what’s your prediction for the game?’.
Of the thousands of kilometres we’d covered to this point, it was clear the last one would be one of the toughest. The stadium was on top of Betzenberg Mountain, and we were just beginning what appeared to be a lengthy ascent. A cyclone fence ran at either edge of a concrete stairway, and beyond that, an elm and poplar forest did its best to provide some much needed shade. For me though, the Mozz lurked behind every tree.
‘I actually reckon one-nil to Japan.’
‘What?’ Nick who was a few steps ahead, stopped in his tracks. Steve stared at me accusingly, as if he’d just seen me smack someone else’s kid.
‘You don’t think we’ll win?’ His eyes bulged still further. Steve honestly couldn’t believe what he was hearing. My choice of the 18th ranked team (Japan) to beat the 42nd (us), was about to lead to an ugly dispute.
‘You don’t think we’ll even draw?’ Nick added, riding the last syllable in disbelief.
The apple was so red and shiny. How crisp and refreshing it would be in this stifling heat. ‘Well, I must admit I did make that prediction a few weeks ago,’ I said, quietly, steering a dangerous path. ‘And I’ve since read that (champion Japanese midfielder) Hide Nakata reckons the Japanese are playing without heart … ’
‘So you do reckon we’ll win then?’ Nick said. I looked around, carefully. The Mozz ran strongly in me. I’d already sorted out the 1997 decider against Iran (‘we’re playing too well to lose, we should be five up’) and two US Presidential elections (‘the US Supreme Court must force a recount’). This was dangerous territory. I lowered my voice.
‘You know I reckon we probably will win it,’ I said. Hideously Yellow Von was saturated from the extended climb. The Fritz-Walter-Stadion was the playing field of the gods.
‘Commit to a score,’ Nick ordered. ‘Commit to a winning Aussie scoreline.’
‘Okay. Australia 2-1,’ I offered, falling into line with the dozens of others I’d interviewed who predicted a similar scoreline. ‘Cahill and Viduka to score.’
‘That’s better,’ Steve said in a headmaster’s tone. He offered me his hand. ‘Don’t worry mate. It’s destiny. It’s all going to work out.’
I shook his hand, and stared at the concrete monolith before us. The roof was being held up by diagonal red beams. Below, we were surrounded by lush, green forest. Steve and Nick said their goodbyes and moved forward to scan their tickets. In seconds, they were inside, celebrating the moment with raised arms. Along the turnstiles, others were doing the same. I was at a sporting event where the very fact of entry was being celebrated like a twenty-metre, curling wonder strike. I watched Steve and Nick disappear into the crowd and contemplated what had just happened to me. After weeks of resisting, I’d done it. I’d tipped the Socceroos.
Forgive me Mozz, for I know not what I do.
‘Number 1, Mark Schwartzer,’
‘Number 2, Lucas Neill,’
Number 3, Craig Moore,’
I was holding back just slightly on my Yeeeeeeeses trying to leave some crescendo room for when my favourite player was announced. Viduka, Kewell, Grella ─ all great, but not my adopted son.
‘Number 14, Scott Chipperfield,’
Tam took a photo of me as I leaned back and gave it my all. How could anyone not love Chipper? The Socceroos didn’t have a Zidane-type talent, but at least in Chipper, we had a Zidane-type bald spot. I loved the fact the scouts missed him until late. I loved that he races dish-lickers. I loved the way that he constantly uses the expression ‘beers with mates’. And I loved that he was driving buses in Wollongong at aged 23 and now, seven years later, was about to walk out in a starting XI at the World Cup.
My favourite Scott Chipperfield quote appears in Andy Harper’s profile of the squad, ‘The Socceroos: Voodoo to Destiny’:
‘I used to drive the bus from Stanwell Park into Wollongong every day. It was a beautiful drive down the coast road from Stanwell Park. I’d meet a lot of people and a lot of them were Wollongong fans and they would want to talk soccer on the bus. I worked there right up until I came to Europe. I am thinking about going back to it. I certainly wouldn’t mind. It was pretty relaxing and you meet a lot of people.’
I gave another cheer for Chipper, and didn’t mind when it coincided with the announcing of John Aloisi, another favourite.
Here’s to the bus driver, bus driver, bus driver.
Here’s to the bus driver, bus driver man.
Our anthem sounded deafening, while the Japanese anthem sounded like the theme from Brokeback Mountain. Apparently, it began life as a 31-syllable poem or ‘waka’, and the funereal melody was added by a composer called Hayashi Hiromori in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the patriotic fervour of the moment I preferred ours, although still believe that the plodding rhythm and girty words leave Advance Australia Fair very vulnerable in any serious anthem-off.
The Egyptian referee blew his whistle and suddenly it was no longer about newspaper pundits or earnest men sitting around television panels. It was finally about the players, the substitutes, the coaches and (given it was now 38 degrees), the water boys. We had our role too. In the aftermath of Sydney, Mark Viduka had talked about the Aussie fans as a collective twelfth man. Again today, we were delivering passionately and yellow-ly. In the first minutes, the blaze of yellow rose and fell with the ebb and flow of the game, and also with the steady succession of ‘Stand Up for Socceroos’ chants descending from the rafters. Our seats were near the front of the first tier, just to the right of the goal Australia was attacking. At five minutes, directly below us, Viduka fired the team’s opening shots ─ first with his left foot, and then on the rebound ─ again with his right.
‘Ooooooooooo,’ we ooo-ed boisterously, applauding the Aussie skipper. Corner to us.Go Bresh! Around us, noise billowed from a crowd that was blooming like a field of canola.
‘Yeeeeeeeesss!’ we screamed again, thinking that the Bresciano corner kick had found the head of Viduka, but suddenly the goalkeeper was there too and he could use his hands. We groaned as he punched the ball away.
The ball pinged around the park, and such is the lot of the terrified fan, almost no section of the pitch offered any respite. At our attacking end, we suffered the possibility of a golden moment tempered by the disappointment of each opportunity unraveling. At their attacking end, we endured the panic of imminent disaster, tempered by relief when disaster was averted. The only time to relax was when the ball was out of play on the half way line being retrieved for the throw. And even then, only when it was our throw.
To fans of other football codes, the ones who accuse soccer of being too low-scoring and therefore boring, the only way to discover the beautiful game is by abandoning neutrality. Take the plunge. Pick a team. Make the fan’s decision to pin a healthy slice of your temporary happiness to the fortunes of that team. Suddenly you’ll discover why football is the most blissfully stressful of all games to watch. Become a barracker and in an instant, the ridiculous skill of curving a ball 35 metres onto a teammate’s moving forehead won’t just be a matter of abstract beauty, a sporting curiosity to hang on the wall, it will be of living importance to the chances of your team. To be a fan is to experience the explosions of joy and the daggers of disappointment a single goal can bring, and in all the time and space between, there is the fear. The fear of what might happen. The knowledge that in such a low scoring game, every act is important.
I thought back to what Kenji had said on the train. Watching football is indeed about mapping futures, moving from one to the next. Even an inexperienced football fan will quickly start spotting patterns. That team goes wide to the wings, a player is released near the corner flag, the ball is crossed to the strikers, and hopefully, it connects sweetly with a foot or head. But the magic of the game is that the predictable pattern is sometimes tossed aside by a burst of speed, or a brilliant pass or a step-over dribble, and suddenly the brain is working again, casting aside the predictable future outcome and re-evaluating for the next most likely event, given the surprise change of circumstances. It’s a continual guessing game, and when there’s emotional investment in the outcome, it’s continually stressful.
At the 20 minute mark of the first half it was still nil-all. Tam felt sick. I was exhausted, unable to hit the high note for the second Waltzing in ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Heaven knows how many futures we still had to go.
How on Earth had it happened? Nakamura, with his red Dorothy slippers, had only been looking to cross, lobbing the ball gently into the penalty area, hoping for a friendly head or boot, but somehow, horribly, before you could blink, Schwartzer was lying on the ground and the ball was in the back of the net.
The goal happened at the other end, so I saw it through binoculars. It was as though the tragedy unfolded in slow motion. The achingly slow parabola of ball in flight. A mess of bodies in front of goal. The dawning realisation that the ball was still in flight and that there was nothing between it and the net. The desperate shout of ‘Noooo!’ and a jerking attempt to find the referee in my glasses. The silence of our crowd, and the distant roar of somebody else’s crowd. The referee pointing towards the centre. The sound of a seat being kicked. ‘Come on ref! COME ON REF!’
The goal played and replayed on the big screen. Then Goleo IV, the World Cup lion mascot arrived in animated form to rub out noses in it. ‘GOOOOAL’ he roared. Piss off Goleo IV’. I was still swearing at cartoon characters when Harry hit the crossbar, directly below. Our clapping had an air of desperation.
‘Stand up … for the Socceroos’. A few hardy fans were trying to lift the rest of us with Pet Shop Boys’ tunes. I stood up, even though I didn’t feel like it. I felt like complaining about the referee, sharing wisdom harnessed from a red bucket seat at 150 metres.
‘The ref-er-ee’s a wan-ker! The ref-er-ee’s a wan-ker!’
It clearly wasn’t just me who felt that way. Guus Hiddink was being tackled by the fourth official to stop him plying some justice Clint Eastwood style against officials further up the chain-of-command.
‘You know what? I think it might have been Schwartzer’s error,’ some renegade said as the goal was replayed again. ‘I’m not sure that’s a foul. Schwartzer kind of runs into him.’
He was a better man than me. I wasn’t in the mood for objective analysis and neither was Tam, whose precious Schwartzy had been barrelled. We were in the mood for some lynchin’.
Although some blamed Schwartzer, most blamed the referee. I was the only one blaming Steve and Nick from Sydney. ‘Why me, Mozz?’ I asked as the second half slipped away, the sand funneling through the hourglass at a rate that defied the laws of physics. ‘Please Mozz, listen to me. I didn’t mean to tip Australia. I really think Japan will win. One-nil. Like I said so many times. Have some mercy, Mozz. It was one slip up in the jingoistic heat of the moment.’ But it seemed the Mozz was having none of it.
Around us, some were turning to more traditional prayer forms, others to a strained rendition of the national anthem. For his part, Guus was turning to strikers. Tim Cahill, Josh Kennedy and John Aloisi were subbed on at the 53rd, 61st and 75th minute respectively. We were playing more positively now. When Viduka rocketed a powerful skimming free kick under a jumping Japanese wall, I honestly thought we’d equalised, but goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi was down quicker than you could say ‘Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi’. Despite some shoddy Japanese defence all around him, he was having a blinder.
A few years ago, I attended the famous ‘Story’ scriptwriting course run by Robert McKee (the same Robert McKee screenwriter Charlie Kaufman portrayed in the film ‘Adaptation’). At some point he talked about structuring a story in three acts, and how at the end of the second act, the hero should be facing his or her greatest obstacle. For example, in a romantic comedy, the couple has to be torn apart, vowing never to speak to each other again, not until Brad respects Angelina for who she has to be. In an action/adventure, Bruce Willis has to be tied to a chair in a burning primary school, mistakenly believing that his son is dead and that the dyed-blonde guy with the nasty scar is on his way to blow up New York. It sets things up for Act Three, the third act climax. Angelina and Brad fall in love again. Bruce Willis rediscovers his roundhouse. It’s the way of the classic Hollywood ending. Do anything else, and it’s arthouse.
Unfortunately, sport is often unsympathetic to this sort of storytelling. Woody Allen, a keen Knicks fan, once famously said that he loves watching sport because ‘it’s the only theatre where even the actors don’t know how it ends’. (have to check quote!) There was no reason why Viduka’s beautifully timed free kick, and Kawaguchi’s stunning save should have been the rock bottom that set things up for a third act climax. It could so easily have been an arthouse ending, the sort where Icelandic songbird Björk plays over the credits.
Instead, we got an ending straight out of the McKee lecture notes. At 83 minutes, a Lucas Neill throw catapulted into the box, Kewell flung his boot at the ball, and to supplement his famously handy miskick to Bresciano for the goal in Sydney against Uruguay, jammed it over to Tim Cahill. Somehow Cahill steered it between a thousand legs, and into the back of an unguarded net.
Suddenly, the world was in magnificent disarray. My most vivid memory is the jumping.
‘Yeeees! Yeeees!’ I screamed, hugging my beloved partner, before the guy from the row behind leaned over the top and took over. Next he turned his affections to me. ‘Yeeees! Yeeeees!’ he cried, as my binoculars bounced up and nearly hit him in the face. I knew what he meant. The boys were on level terms, and we had the run of it.
‘Soo-per, Super Tim
Soop-er, Super Tim
Soo-per, Super Tim
Super Timmy Cahill!’
We sang it loud and strong, back to our barracking best. Unfortunately we were cut short by a Japanese attack. Oh God, surely we wouldn’t concede now.
Fukunishi, his hair dyed red like the rising sun, was the one with the ball. He was charging at Schwartzer, just him and the keeper. ‘Yeeeeeesss! we screamed as the shot screamed narrowly wide. Now the barracking was back at full volume.
A minute passed. Australia took it forward. Just outside the penalty area, Aloisi tapped it deftly to Cahill who stopped, checked the ball, ripped off a shot, and as the ball pin-balled from post to post, unleashed ten million screams across Australia.
I was exhausted now. We’d been bouncing for 7 minutes and in the 38˚ heat, I wasn’t sure I was fit enough to be this happy. It was impossible. Praise be to Josh Kennedy, with his giraffe gait and fluorescent yellow boots. He was the one who had sparked this. The boys had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and unbelievably with 92 minutes on the clock, the Socceroos were 2-1 and charging forward for the rinse and floss.
‘Aloisi! Aloisi! Aloiseeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’ Now it was just funny. It was the sort of goal Australia never seems to score. Striker runs at defender, defender backs off, striker clinically slides it into the corner. ‘Three-one, three-one three-one’ we sang. Japan was exhausted and we were Brazil. There had to be just seconds left.
Peep! Peep! Peep! Good on ya ref! No hard feelings about before. The players and officials descended into an enormous group hug, and we continued on like popped corn at full heat. The sound system kicked in, and we were blasted with ‘Stand Up for Champions’, a syrupy World Cup anthem the organisers had sculpted from ‘Go West’. We sang along, changing the world ‘champions’ to ‘Socceroos’, the kitsch production drowned out by the efforts of the grandstand choir. The players walked down our end, and clapped us for our support. I hoped they forgave us for the quiet patch we had around the 70 minute mark.
Three points. Whatever happened against Brazil, we’d go into the Croatia match a chance to qualify for the second round. I gave Tamsin a hug. If you’re reading this Gene, you were in it too. You might even remember it ─ it was manic and unbalanced and your mother stopped breathing.
‘Whatever happens, we’ll always have Kaiserslautern,’ I said, getting the emphasis on exactly the right syllable.
Breathless, Tam prised me off and regained her balance. ‘Whatever happens, we’ll always have Kaiserslautern.’
I spent the post match at the same outdoor restaurant where we’d spent the pre-match, basking in ─ in order ─ the glow of victory, large cups of beer and the picturesque beauty of a sixteenth century town square at dusk. Each rendezvous was another excuse to shriek and carry on. Rita was incoherent through the initial hug, and Tom smiled under his sixteen year old sweaty curls as I forced him into an embrace too. ‘I told you – Cahill and Kennedy’ he said, sage-like, recoiling slightly from the-none-too-fresh aroma of Hideously Yellow Von.
‘This is the best day of my life,’ I said to Tom, just as I’d said to everyone else who would listen for more than an hour. In fact as a quick aside to my unborn child ─ if you are reading this ─ remember that your birth came after the match against Japan. Of course your birth day is the best day of your Daddy’s life. The truth is it took your birth to stop Daddy saying ‘This is the best day of my life!’ pretty much every time the Socceroos took the field from November 2005 to the end of June 2006. And so you can rest assured little Kaiserslautern Aloisi Cahill Wilson, your Daddy has his priorities safely in order.
Later in that old cobbled square I was hugging my mate Cameron Fink, who quite incredibly, needed a shower even more than me. Cam was born for this party. In Melbourne he was famous for never having carved out a single day where he began work at nine and finished at five, surviving on a prodigious talent for graphic design and an easy-going tolerance for spending time under the parental roof.
He’s wiry, flowing of hair, tanned, and lights up a room when he enters it, specifically with his teeth. He left Melbourne University about a decade after he began there with a law degree he vowed he would never even collect, let alone use. And in spirit, Cam has never really left university. In the last twelve months ─ six years after his ‘graduation’ ─ he has organised a booze cruise, a naked march through the city of Melbourne and any number of themed parties, to which he’s come as a fish, a Viking, a Mr Whippy Van, a dodgem car, the Death Star, a Viking (again) and a goose that actually lays eggs.
Ask Cam why he continued to hang around the University and he’d invariably say, ‘the social life’. Ask any of his friends why he did, and they’d say, ‘the first years.’ Cameron Fink is a charming man. Who else has had a thirtieth birthday where the first speaker begins his speech with ‘I first met Cameron Fink the morning after he shagged my sister’ to which the third speaker responds ‘I already knew Cam Fink quite well when he shagged my sister.’ The second speaker didn’t have a sister.
Today, his dress was an Aussie shirt, towelling shorts, and the one and only pair of orange Explorer socks on the planet. He stood before me, tanned and grinning and shouting ‘how good was that!’ Cam was staying in Kaiserslautern with his traveling mate Charlie, having both scored accommodation through the website www.couchsurfing.com . The site operates under the slogan ‘creating a better world, one couch at a time’ and involves hosts opening up their homes and living rooms to travellers, completely free, all on the premise that those who surf will one day prop up the wave. Naturally, Cam’s host had fallen for him, and they were off to Strasbourg the next morning.
‘They have been so welcoming,’ Cam said of the Kaiserslauts (Or is it Kaiserslautians?). ‘How good are the Germans? Last night, one guy found out we liked wine, and then walked us around the town, trying to find the nicest bottle in the district. In the end he was distraught because he could only dig up the second nicest.’
‘It was still pretty nice,’ said Charlie.
We celebrated for a few hours, revelling in the smiles and well wishes we were receiving, not just from the locals, but from the Japanese too. ‘Australia was better,’ one fan said, crouched and despondent. ‘Australia deserve it.’
The train back to Frankfurt departed at 9.05pm, which unfortunately, meant leaving Kaiserslautern while the streets were still jumping, and the golden shirts still had the run of the place. The consolation prize was a party carriage that was determined to sing and dance its way into the night.
‘Take my breath a-way’ the masses crooned. As Tom Zammit pointed out, there was a remarkable amount of slow dancing going on, given an almost exclusively male dance floor.
Rita had not forgotten she was a parent, as well as a fan. ‘Tom can have one more beer,’ she said, heading to the cool of another carriage. ‘He’s already had one in the beer garden.’
In the end, Tom and I had three Camaparis and orange. I know that’s irresponsible and was disrespectful to my friend’s wishes, but she’s eleven years older, and he’s seventeen years younger, and just for a moment, I wanted to feel down with the kids. Besides drinking is legal in Germany at sixteen, and if you’re going to be slow dancing with men, it is made more palatable with a few drinks.
‘I got Garfield out at the 75 minute mark,’ Tom said, as ‘I’m Walking on Sunshine’ boomed through the sauna like atmosphere of the party carriage. ‘I gave Garfield a kiss, and a few minutes later Cahill scored.’
‘And remember, you were crapped on by a bird,’ I added sagely.
‘And I got crapped on by a bird,’ he nodded.
There was no question about it. The boy had earned his drinks.