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Your Shirt is a Tablecloth

Picture 164

22 June 2006, Stuttgart, Australia v Croatia, Group F

Chapter 8 of Tony Wilson’s ‘Australia United: Adventures at the 2006 World Cup , Germany’. Posted to celebrate tenth anniversary of this wonderful day. 

On the morning of the Croatian game, I woke, showered and made a decision that rocked me to my core. It was time to watch the Socceroos without Hideously Yellow Von. Obviously, I didn’t do it lightly. I talked it over with Tam, and after carefully weighing the pros and cons –

pros: Hideously Yellow Von had been there for two big wins;
cons: Hideously Yellow Von was hot, stinky, un-Australian and living in the suitcase of the great unwashed: –
I decided to promote a clean, comfortable official team jersey to the starting line-up.

Today, the only really important men who would be wearing it had a simple mission. If we beat Croatia, we qualified. If we lost to Croatia, they qualified. If we drew with Croatia, we qualified – unless Japan beat Brazil by three goals or more. And remember if that happened, Chuck Norris.

I caught the train in with two-T-shirted Tom, who was still nurturing enough superstitions for all of us. He had a new horn, one of those nightmare aerosol numbers that appealed to his sixteen year-old desire to make a loud, uncomfortable noise, and then look around and say ‘that was me who made that loud, uncomfortable noise.’

The only impressive thing about Tom’s aerosol was that he’d acquired it via some incredibly skilful horn arbitrage. At the lunch the previous day he’d had a slightly less loud, and therefore slightly less annoying yellow trumpet horn, which he’d used to attract the attention of a hornless Aussie fan, two tables across.

Waaaaaaaaaaaahhh! Tom’s horn bleated, disturbing much of central Stuttgart. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!

Before we could tell him to shut up, he’d summoned the man across to our table.

‘That horn’s pretty good,’ the hornless one said, revealing immediately that he was suffering from a bad case of horn envy. ‘I’ll buy it from you for ten euro.’ I was unsure what Tom would do. To that point, his business instincts were untested. He had worked as a burger-flipper for one of those corporations that has been legally found not to exploit child labour. Tom bought his own ticket to the Croatia game with money saved over the previous year. According to his parents, Rita and Alex, he was yet to completely hit his straps as an employee. He had to his credit zero Employee Of The Month certificates, and to his debit an awkward incident where he’d pressed a button in drive-thru ‘just to see what it did’. Calling the cops out for an emergency visit apparently attracts a $400 fee, and happily his employer decided not to pass it on to Tom. There was also the time he’d dropped a plastic shake lid into the deep fryer.

People say this particular brand of fast food tastes like plastic. It’s not impossible that at least some of these stumbled into an Essendon store between two and four on a Sunday afternoon, some time in May 2005.

In a second though, here in Stuttgart, we’d realised the kid had business flair. Some muttered words passed between Tom and his potential purchaser, and suddenly the price was up to 15 euros. Cashed up, Tom excused himself from the table, walked fifty metres up the road, and entered the ground floor of a sports store. Not less than five minutes later, he sauntered back with a brand new aerosol horn, grinning widely, clearly pleased with his ten minutes work. He placed his horn in the middle of the table, and glanced over at the horn lover, who was still eating his schnitzel and sauerkraut. If could keep this up, he’d have a working megaphone by afternoon tea.

Today Rita was clutching his hand, not so much out of motherly love, but to keep track of his aerosol trigger finger. The train rumbled. Across the aisle, two blokes who were clearly father and son, smiled blearily at us.

‘Excited?’ I asked.

‘Tired.’ We later learnt the son was Mark and the father was Gavin. ‘Excited but tired.’

‘You just arrived?’ I noticed there was a suitcase under his feet.

‘Yep. Just arrived from Frankfurt. We came straight through from Brisbane yesterday.’

‘When did you get your tickets?’

‘No tickets,’ Mark replied. ‘We only decided to come yesterday.’

I heard several ‘just decided to come’ stories in Germany, but none was better than that of Mark and his father.

‘I gave Dad a call and just said, “Do you want to go?’ He seemed to know exactly what I meant, and said, “yeah, okay, let’s go.” And so I went home from work, picked up my passport, called a cab, picked up Dad, and went to the airport. From there we bought a ticket, and flew to Dubai, and then on to Frankfurt. Thirty-two hours later, we’re here.’

‘We haven’t got a ticket,’ Gavin said, yawning, ‘but at least we’re here. We’ll be happy if we just soak it up in the Fan Fest big screen area.’

‘I reckon you’ll get a ticket,’ I said. ‘Apparently the going rate is between 250 and 300 euro’. They nodded. They’d just spent $2000 each to get where they were. It was unlikely they’d fall at the final hurdle. Still, it was incredible commitment.

‘Can you remember what you were doing when you decided to come?’ I said to Mark, thinking of a similarly spontaneous trip I took in March 2001 to watch the ‘Final Frontier’ cricket series in India. One moment I was watching Gilchrist hit sixes in a lounge room at my parents’ place. Less than a week later I was in the ground at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, watching as V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid made history.

‘Of course I can remember,’ Mark said. ‘It was only yesterday.’

***

Rita and Andro, negotiating.

Rita and Andro, negotiating.

‘Mark Viduka is from Zadar,’ said Andro, a burly Croatian fan with a red-checked ‘Dalmatija’ neck tattoo and a ‘Kroaten mafia – More Money, More Goals’ flag across his back.

‘Mark Viduka is from Keilor,’ Rita replied, rising to her full height ―163cms.

‘Mark Viduka’s father is from Zadar!’

‘Mark Viduka is from Keilor!’

The “is he Australian” or “is he Croatian” debate was one that was going on right across the crowded Schlossplatz, but Rita was one of the few choosing to have it with an ex-con.

‘Zadar in Dalmatia!’

‘Keilor in Melbourne!’

‘Mark Viduka. He come from my country!’

“Mark Viduka lives in my suburb!’

Rita was surely taking liberties with that one. If the Middlesborough striker lived in Pascoe Vale South, he was there on a very, very, very part-time basis. It is true however that Viduka once did interview for the job as a shoe box stacker at Highpoint Shopping Centre in Maribyrnong, which is only a well-hit four iron from Pascoe Vale South. According to Andy Harper’s ‘Voodoo to Destiny’, the Duke missed out on the job because in answer to the “what days after school can you work” question, the young Viduka replied, “I can’t do Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday because of training.” I wish he had have scored the job. Only because I have worked in box-stacking, and wish I had something in common with the Aussie captain. I was stock boy in the Intimate Apparel section of the Daimaru department store during my rehabilitation from a knee operation in 1991. As a result, I still have recall on a bra brand for every letter of the alphabet.

A ― Adorable
B ― Bendon
C ― Calvin Klein

D ―  Devonport
E ― Elle McPherson
F ― Fayre-form
G ― Gucci
H ― Hey Sister
I ― Intimo
J ― Jean-Paul Gautier
K ― Kylie
L ― Lovable
M ― Maggie T
N ― Nancy Dancz
O ― Oroton
P ― Playtex
Q ― QT
R ― Running Bare
S ― Simone Perele
T ― Triumph
U ― Undergirl
V ― Victoria’s Secret
W ― Wonderbra
X ― XXX
Y ― Yves St Laurent
Z ― Zero

With some relief we discovered that Rita’s new friend Andro hadn’t done time for any sort of violent crime. Indeed he was a prisoner back in the days of the old Yugoslavia, sentenced to six months in prison for illegally changing his passport so that it read ‘Nationality: Croatian’, ‘Religion: Catholic’.  Andro said that when he was in prison it wasn’t so bad, but when his uncle had been imprisoned in 1982, he was bashed to death by the authorities. ‘They say in the prison that he fall down,’ Andro said sadly. ‘But they bash him. They murder him in the jail.’

Now Andro worked in security, and wanted to come to Australia. His neck and arm girth made him a natural contender for any nightclub door job. I told him to learn just two sentences — ‘what is your star sign?’ and ‘sorry, members only tonight, mate.’

‘Your government won’t let me come there because I have been to prison. I would love to live in Australia. Everybody in Australia is half-half. Part-Italian. Part-English. Part-Croatian. I would like to come to Australia and be part-Australian.’

Rita, Tom and I were three yellow dots in a mass of red and white. The numbers of Croatian fans had exploded overnight, and they now occupied a wide bank of about 100 steps – in military terms, the high ground. The steps were wedged between the Königsbau on one side, with its centuries old colonnade, and on the other, a futuristic glass prism office block. They looked down upon the wide expanse of the Schlossplatz and the Fan Fest with its three spectacular screens. It was filling up with people for the Czech versus Italy match.

Picture 157 croat steps 2I now understood how the Japanese must have felt when we had them numerically covered back in Kaiserslautern. The occasional flare lit up the steps and resultant smoke filled the air with an ominous sulphuric smell. The Croatian songs rolled from a deep, humpback chant that rumbled through the chest – ‘Hr-vat-skaaaa, Hr-vat-skaaaa’ – through to a locally adapted version of “Guantanamero”.

‘We are one country but we are many people. That’s what this means,’ a mohawked Croatian by the name of Davor translated for me.

The bulk of the Australian fans were several hundred metres away, spread over the sandstone steps of the Königsbau. They hit back with their own chants.

There was the confident:

‘You’re red! You’re white!

You’re going home tonight!’

There was the witty: (to the tune of ‘Go West’):

‘You’re shirt … is a tablecloth

You’re shirt … is a tablecloth!’

And there was the offensive: (also to ‘Go West’):

‘You’re shit … but your chicks are hot

 You’re shit … but your chicks are hot,’

Picture 180 aus fans pre gameI felt a little embarrassed for that last one, thinking it was crass and sexist and unworthy of our previous good efforts, but felt better when I found out what the Croatian mob’s next chant was.

Davor had initially refused to translate, but then, on my urging relented. ‘In Croatian that one means, “Fuck off you fucking pussies,” he said quietly.

Another flare hissed to life at the back of the Croatian steps. A group of fifteen khaki-suited riot police stood in formation, facing them. They had their hands behind their backs, officially at ease, but ready nevertheless. It felt ominous, thrilling ― the same sort of feeling that the flares and the barbed wire and the moat had engendered when I walked into El Estadio Centenario in Montevideo a few years earlier. And through all that sea of red and white danced a small group of Ghanans. The Black Stars had just beaten the USA 2-1 in Nuremberg. For them, the party started now.

Picture 148 konigsbau long***

There was almost no conversation we had with a Croatian that didn’t somehow drift to the six Socceroos of Croatian background. On the train to the ground, llija took up the baton.

‘Every Australian has a Croatian grandmother or grandfather. Australians are just Croatians. You have six Croatian players. They will betray you. There is no way Viduka would score against his own country, no way Kalac will stop the goals.’ llija was in his mid twenties, and capitalising on Germany’s relaxed public drinking rules. He had a longneck in each hand, and one tucked under his armpit.

‘Baaaaaaaaaaah’ Rita said, waving off the argument, refusing to discuss it any more.

Other Aussies on the train were obviously feeling a similar sentiment, because pretty soon the carriage was rocking to a chant of ‘You wish you had Vid-oo-ka, You wish you had Vid-oo-ka’.

‘Whatever you do, don’t argue that some of the Croatians should be playing for Australia,’ Artie Campbell said, as the fans sang Waltzing Matilda. Artie, a tall, angular distance runner and economics student at Harvard, is a friend of my brother Ned’s. They’re both Australians living in Boston and the previous night Ned and Artie had been out together.

‘I met a Croatian guy in a bar last night’ Artie began, ‘this guy reckoned that all six Croatian-heritage Socceroos should be playing for Croatia, and how’s this — that the only players who should be allowed to play for the Socceroos are aborigines. I replied that given threee of theirs — Josip Simunic, Anthony Seric, and Joey Didulica were born in Australia and had football scholarships in Australia, they should have to play for Australia.’

Artie then had turned around to take a beer from a friend at the bar. When he looked back, the argument had gone into its non-verbal phase. The Croatian was staring at him, glaring at him, with a hunting knife lodged between his teeth.

Of course I’m in tabloid mode here, concentrating on the sensationalist stories and ignoring the dozens of Croatians who shared high fives with us, and said that because of the Croatian heritage, the Socceroos would become their team too if they made it through to the second round.

After the packed, convection-heated ride to the stadium, we exited the train as a sweating excited horde. On the platform, a grey-bearded Aussie presented us with a slip of paper.

‘I’m sick of the repetition in the “Stand up for the Socceroos” Here are some new lyrics.’ He had them printed out.

“Stand up for the Socceroos

Sing loud for the Socceroos

Feel proud of the Socceroos

It’s the time of the Socceroos.”

How far we’d come. Not only the team, which had barely nicked a hurdle in its first two games, but the supporters. The indications were that the ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie Oi Oi Oi’ was banished, never to be heard at a Socceroos match again and now this ambitious, middle-aged beard was trying to achieve lyrical diversity.

That said, as we wandered past the Karl Benz centre and into the evening shadow cast by the stadium, I threw the slip of paper in the bin. Fifty-five minutes to kick-off. This was no time for cramming.

Picture 215 train to game***

‘Oh no, he’s not going to, is he?’ Tam had seen it coming with the ‘G’day Aussie fans!’ and it approached with the inevitability of a car accident when the screech of brakes comes that fraction too late.

There was nobody really to blame. It was all done in the spirit of smiling hospitality. The man on the microphone was some Swabian celebrity who had lived for ten years in Australia. He wanted to welcome us, make us feel at home. He wasn’t to know that we were recovering oi addicts, still sweating it out through the patches.

‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!’ he roared, leaning back and giving it his all.

‘Oi! Oi! Oi’ the people returned.

Encouraged, he gave the next bit even more.

‘Aussie Aussie Aussie!’

‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’

I probably don’t need to tell you how it ended. But I will anyway. I had to sit through it. Why shouldn’t you?

‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’

This time, I actually dispensed with personal principle and oi-ed along with the masses. The German guy wasn’t to know. It was a bit like making an effort to laugh hard at particularly unfunny jokes in a father-of-the-bride speech. I didn’t want him to crash and burn. It would soon be over, and then we could continue with our recovery.

I like to think I was somewhat of a pioneer in spotting the mind-numbing inadequacies of the ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’. On Race Around the World, I made my sixth story at the World Cup, and it was called ‘An Aussie Aussie Aussie in Paris.’ It involved walking the streets, collecting songs, and determining whether the ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’ was the worst sporting chant on Earth. First I considered it in its component parts: it starts with the ‘Aussie’, so nobody is any sort of doubt as to who owns the grunts that follow, and then there are the grunts that follow. Then I sought international feedback, and where possible, counselling.

Three face-painted Jamaican fans had offered spiritual advice:

‘Going “Australia oi oi oi, Australia” is not enough. You have to feel the music within you. You have to be lifted spiritually – with a purpose. We as a people invented reggae music all around the world. Everyone learn from we!”

Three pill-happy Englishman offered repertoire advice, as well as advising me that they weren’t strictly meant to be in France, because their hooligan pasts had them on the banned list:

‘You can say ‘oggie, oggie, oggie’ oi, oi oi’, of course you can. But then comes the next one, and then the next one. The problem with Australian sport is that it’s all about the family. What you need is five or ten thousand blokes, singing … in a mob. Women do not sing well in a mob. It’s all …(screech, screech, screech.}’

By the end of the mini-documentary, “Aussie Aussie Aussie” was deemed by independent experts from fifteen countries to be bloody, bloody, bloody, awful, awful awful. Most agreed that its only competitor for worst chant on the planet, came from the Mexicans with their ‘Arariba, Araroba, Arra Bing Bom Ba /Mexico Mexico Ra Ra Ra’. I heard it again in Germany, and while similar to our own monstrosity (i.e. having no meaning or tune) what it does have is some attractively rolled rrrrs. That was enough for me to consign ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’ to the international cellar of bad chants. Let’s never hear from it again.

***

 

Goals at the two-minute mark should be banned. There should be a gentlemen’s agreement between everyone involved that the ball gets tapped around, there’s maybe one or two throw-ins, defenders stand off a little, strikers think about taking them on, but then reconsider, and tap the ball back toward the midfield. Tap, tap, tap. Pump the heartbeat up slowly. That’s how games should start.

I’m particularly anti goals in the first two minutes when they happen for the other side. We’d barely had time to comprehend the notion that Kalac was in the side for Schwarzer, before he was airborne, flying for a Dado Prso free kick that was post marked ‘express delivery — top left hand corner’. It was hard to blame Kalac. I only started to do so an hour later, once he and I had completely lost the plot.

prsoThe first goal set the red and white end of the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion into a hive of motion, as though heat had suddenly been applied. We’d been singing ‘You’re red, you’re white, you’re going home tonight!’ and suddenly, disaster had struck. I placed my forehead on the steel lean bar, and paid homage to the Mozz.

‘Please Mozz. We didn’t mean anything with that ‘you’re going home tonight’ stuff. Why don’t you give us a break and go and watch Brazil versus Japan? That’s where most of the neutral interest is.’

Indeed it was. I received a text message from my mate John Harms — in Greece. It just read, ‘Brazil versus Japan being shown in the taverna here. Arrrrgggghhh!’

He was missing the match of the tournament. Prso’s brilliant free kick goal was the game’s adrenalin shot and for the next twenty minutes, we watched as Australia pushed forward, attempting to equalise. Kewell’s shot on the half hour was a stinging twenty-metre blast, that would have been the equaliser, had it been a metre either side of Stipe Pletikosa. I swore and asked my brother why it was that our players always seemed to hit the ball directly at the keeper. Ned shrugged.

‘Look at the average score line. Surely the vast majority of shots for both teams go straight at the keeper?’

I thanked Ned for his sensible insights, and asked him to keep them to himself for the rest of the game.

At 38 minutes, Stjepan Tomas, a friend of Mark Viduka’s, decided for no apparent reason to discover his inner Bruce Doull, leaping for a seemingly innocuous aerial challenge with extended hand in a fashion that would have pleased the ex-Carlton AFL great. Referee Graham Poll saw the contact, blew the whistle, and sent us into delirious rapture.

‘Please not Viduka. Please not Viduka,’ I thought, somewhat shamefacedly.

I love the Aussie captain, love him for his commitment to the team, and for the way he presents in the media. I’ll always remember him scoring four goals in a Premier League game for Leeds, and in the post-match press conference, ignoring the question, looking down the barrel and saying, ‘Is this going out live to Australia? G’day to all the boys in Keilor!’

The V-bomber is likeable, but he was having a trot of bloody awful penalties. The Uruguay miss was a nervous poke, and the crossbar thumper in the Dutch friendly in Rotterdam an overcompensated blast. After that miss he said, ‘I’ll take another 100 if that’s what it takes to score’. My plan is to personally invade the pitch and wrestle him to the ground if he gets into the nervous nineties.

Coach Hiddink must have also had his doubts, and so it was Craig Moore who stepped to the spot. He wasn’t there for the Uruguay shootout, a hamstring injury keeping him in Newcastle (UK), and instead relied on ex-Socceroo Kevin Muscat to commentate the history-making moment down the phone to him. Now, instead of being 17,000 kilometres away from controlling his team’s destiny, he held it in his hands; he carefully placed the ball on the spot, and then belted it down the middle and into the back of the net.

‘Yeeeeeeeeeeeesssss!’ The stands at the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion were much older than the ones at Munich or Kaiserslautern. Would the foundations stand up to this? Moore headed for the sidelines with one arm raised, and collectively we let our abandon run free. One fan – two rows in front – fell over the front of the metal bar, and into the row in front. The boys there caught him, and suddenly he was crowd surfing his way back to his seat. My mobile phone pulsed with continuous text messages, as the fans pulsed with the celebrations. I read the first one from my sister. ‘SBS close up on Rita celebrating goal! She’s bawling!’

It was good work from the cameraman and the vision switchers. If you had to select somebody to cry for her country, Rita would be first picked. And she was doing that for an audience of millions, half a world away.

***

Robert Coover, in his essay on Spain in ‘The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup’ included a memorable paragraph about the brilliant agony of being a football fan.

‘In his despair or ecstasy, (the fan) often fails to see the game at all, experiencing it rather at a level that is blind, irrational, profound, innocent. Technique, philosophy, the merits of the opposition, peculiarities of the match are of little interest to him. He has come, not to reflect or spectate or to be entertained, but to participate, to surrender, to suffer.’

If Coover was next to me for the first ten minutes of the second half, he would have copped an elbow in the ribs. It wouldn’t have been deliberate, but given Tam had to wear one as I excitedly celebrated a Chipperfield blast at the 52nd minute, Coover would have worn it too.

I also would have congratulated him on his insights about the irrational blindness of the fan and asked him to guide me through the Kalac calamity, to use his calm, neutral insight to stop me from descending into madness.

Clearly Kalac was trying his best, and having me say ‘it’s like we don’t have a keeper! It’s like we don’t have a keeper!’ over and over probably wasn’t constructive, but I honestly lost all control. In playing out his nightmare, Kalac made a howler for each of his eight spidery limbs. Croatia’s goal at 56 minutes was a torture. It was right in front of us – a weak, half-hearted, nothing-else-but-hope waft on the part of Kovac, that bobbled in front of big Spider and somehow kept right on bobbling. Guus, our golden Guus, had for once laid us a rotten egg.

‘There you go Tone. They sometimes hit them straight at the keeper too,’ Ned said.

It was a good one from Ned, and if I had been a little less distraught, I would have congratulated him.

‘What a way to lose’ I said to Tam. Again Mr Coover could have counselled me that we hadn’t lost yet.

‘How could they drop Schwarzer?’ she said, for the twentieth time that night, caught in a mantra.

kalac

The Schwarzer or Kalac debate was, literally, almost as old as them. They were both born in 1972, two months apart. They played under 12s in the Nepean Association in Sydney and, with Kalac the number one choice for the inter-league keeping position, a pre-teen Schwarzer relocated to the Blacktown league where he became that district’s number one. For twenty years, they jostled for the one position on a football ground that makes little room for two. An injury to Schwarzer meant Kalac got the nod for the Under-19s World Cup, Schwarzer recovered to be the Socceroos’ number two behind Mark Bosnich in the early nineties. His penalty shootout saves against Canada in 1993 were a preview of what was to come against Uruguay twelve years later. Meanwhile, Kalac had his backers. A brilliant shot stopper, he’d climbed to the highest rungs in Europe, and now was the number two at the mighty AC Milan. The debate had raged for years, and now, horribly, it was being decided definitively in the minds of millions of Australians.

Fortunately, the rest of the backs were having a terrific match. Lucas Neill was intercepting everything, timing tackles to perfection, continuing a form run that had him touted as one of the defenders of the tournament. Moore and Vince Grella weren’t far behind, throwing themselves into contests with a controlled fury. And in the midfield, Brett Emerton gave us end to end run, transferring the ball at a pace unmatched on the park.

Except perhaps by Kewell. Harry was brilliant, celebrating his good fortune at just being out there with a sparkling game when his country needed it most. He’d done it against Iran in 1997, he’d been fantastic in both legs against Uruguay in 2001, and established himself as our all-time greatest in that match in Sydney in November 2005.  Anyone who doubts Harry Kewell’s record is concentrating too hard on his understandable absences from Oceania group games and his Premier League hiccups. And as Tamsin pointed out, he’d even made the magnificent decision to cut off the double-pony-tail monstrosity that had dogged him through the last half of 2005.

His second half against Croatia was something else. As he charged forward, the ball seemed stuck to his boot by electrostatic forces. He changed direction decisively and unexpectedly, like a German escalator (they go up and down!). At 70 minutes, he almost blasted us back into contention, and then fittingly, magically, he found some space in the 79th minute, locked his sights on the target, and sent the whole country into a leaping, shrieking delight — from the Prime Minister down. 2-2!

kewell

Yes, Brazil isn’t the only country with politicians who understand the power of football. As we jumped with the thousands in the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion, Prime Minister Howard was doing the same in The Lodge, having waited until half time to invite the media pack into the Prime Ministerial sitting room. No doubt for the first half he was thinking as hard as Guus. “If we’re no chance, I’ll leave them out there, but if we still have a sniff, I’ll get Jeanette to send down the tracksuit. No, not the Vodafone tracksuit Jeanette, that’s the other code I don’t really care about.” As the timely arrival of the Tampa demonstrated in 2001, our ruler is nothing if not lucky, and sure enough, there he was across all of the nation’s papers and internet home pages, airborne and grinning and sharing in the glory of the moment. Looking at that photo, I take back what I said earlier about bandwagon jumpers. Members only tonight, Prime Minister.

If this was the tournament when Aussie fans learned to sing, Croatia was the game where we learned to stand. For Japan, we’d been mostly seated with short standing bursts. For Brazil, we’d been half down and half up, but now, nobody took the option of a seat. We leant on the metal bars, as VfB Stuttgart fans had for decades.

For the last twelve minutes, time flowed like treacle. I remember the field being a giant pinball game, bells and whistles lighting up as the ball raced from end to end. Ref Poll struggled to keep control as both teams weren’t afraid to chance their arms with a ‘tilt’. Dario Simic was sent off for his leg-sweeping tackle on Kewell – a second yellow card – and Emerton followed soon after for racking up two silly yellows in six minutes. He was stiff on the second. It wasn’t a very deliberate hand-ball. But it’s hard to have sympathy for someone who later says, ‘I thought he (being English) would let a little bit more go than the referees from other nations.’ With the biggest game of your life at stake, why would you be working with shades of grey, Brett?

Culina leapt, Kalac botched, Moore saved, Cahill hoicked, Bresciano ran, and Kennedy, our own galloping Jesus, won hearts with his work rate at both ends of the pitch. He was fouled at 90 minutes by “Aussie Jo” Simunic, but impossibly, the Croat was shown his second yellow but not the red card. At 93 minutes, Poll compounded the error by flashing Simunic a record-making third yellow card, which made the earlier error more comedic. The pressure was on and experienced refs couldn’t count to two.

Picture 250 aussie fanNobody was really sure when the match ended. The whistle sounded at 92 minutes and we screamed for the historic moment, before realising we were screaming for something slightly less historic —Poll was ushering an extra ball off the pitch. Then Aloisi poked one home, and we screamed for our certain victory before becoming aware that for some unknown reason, the goal didn’t count. We finally worked out that the referee had blown full time, seemingly mid-strike on goal, and so we screamed with all our hearts. The boys had done it. The draw was enough. My change of shirt hadn’t hurt our chances.

I could finally chant it with gusto.

‘You’re red, you’re white, you’re going home tonight!’

‘You’re red, you’re white, you’re going home tonight!’

Just a final note on the timing of the whistle. In football, there’s a strong convention for the referee to allow an attacking move to play out once injury time has elapsed — for him to only blow full-time once the ball is cleared or a goal is scored. Everyone assumed that a draw was enough, but if Japan had have found its three goal miracle against Brazil in a game being played at exactly the same time, at least I would have known where to send Chuck Norris first — Graham Poll’s house. Even as it stands, the disallowance of that goal is a great shame. Our group stage performances were superb, but history will say that Australia won just a single match at the World Cup. It should have been two.

Picture 271 players bow***

When people ask what was the best part of my World Cup adventure, I normally choose the eight minutes in Kaiserslautern, just because without them, it would have deadened our whole tournament. But a close second was the post-match in Stuttgart. We didn’t leave the stadium for an hour and a half, and at no stage in that 90 minutes did the noise abate.

The players were clearly loving it too, so much so that after disappearing into the rooms following our first salute, they reappeared about twenty minutes later, to take a curtain call. Apparently Graham Arnold arrived last in the change-rooms and said, ‘nobody’s gone anywhere. They’re all still going crazy’ and Hiddink told the players to get back out there. The Aussie songs boomed out of the sound system. Men At Work, Hunters and Collectors, Acca Dacca. Archie Thompson played electric guitar on the corner flag to ‘TNT’. The players joined hands and stepped into a bow, raised their arms and then bowed again. It was choreographed and beautiful. We doubled our cheering. They could have been the stars of ‘A Chorus Line’.

It was much later, long after the players had disappeared that we started exiting the stand. I saw the Groundskeepers Willie on the way down. ‘I bit me croc tooth all day long. I told you this bastard works!’ Groundskeeper Willie-Mark screeched in a strangulated, fading voice, holding up his lucky charm in triumph. Groundskeeper Willie-Peter was almost in tears. ‘I didn’t think I was going to be able to come on this trip. I can’t believe the boys did it. It was a miracle what they just did. A miracle!’

Our exit stalled at the under croft of the grandstand, where we realised that acoustically, we could create something special. For an hour, we sang our already-spent lungs out, exhausting our repertoire to such an extent that we even gave the second verse of the national anthem a whirl.

‘Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we’ll toil with heart and hand

To make our radiant Commonwealth, renowned throughout the land’

As it threatened to be overtaken by a ‘Super Timmy Cahill,’ I threw out a tongue in cheek request for the third verse.

‘On your own, On your own, On your own!’ Cam Fink sang to the ‘Here we go’, pointing at me, drawing back-up vocals from a thousand of my new best friends.

Rita arrived too, joining Tam and me and Ned and Cam and Charlie. ‘There is a god, and he loves soccer!’ she screamed, falling into the group hug. Tom was a little more hesitant, but did enjoy watching his normally clean speaking mother sing ‘let’s go fucking mental’ with the rest of us. Rita was virtually incoherent. ‘How good was it! How good was it! How good was the AC-DC at the end! You know I saw them at Broadmeadows Town Hall in 1976. I think it was the Form Five social.’ There’s one for the music historians. Australia’s most successful ever music export played Geoghan College Year 11 social in 1976.

Amid the singing dancing, throng, familiar faces kept popping up. SBS’s ‘Dateline’ presenter George Negus was there wearing a top like mine, only with NEGUS printed on the back. Amid the scrum, I spotted Mark and Gavin of Father and Son Shotgun Sports Tours. Clearly they’d found some tickets, and despite the lack of sleep, were alive with the thrill of the moment.

I also saw Clemmo (aka The Claw), a bloke I’d played amateur footy with at Melbourne’s University Blacks. I actually caused the hand deformity which won Clemmo the nickname ‘Claw’. In a pre-season practice match he missed me on a lead, I suggested maybe a touch harshly that he shouldn’t have, and he punched the ground. He showed me the damaged tendons. ‘It was your abuse, and my high personal standards that made the claw’.  Claw, who has a Croatian girlfriend, also taught me the key sentence for negotiating any conversations with disappointed Croats. ‘Volim te’ means “I love you”. Just keep saying it over and over …Volim te, Volim te’ . Claw also taught me a few Croatian phrases to unconditionally avoid. By chance, a glum-faced Croatian was trudging through our throng at exactly that inopportune moment, and we were thrust into the role of peacemakers. ‘Volim te’. ‘Volim te’.

Given the Croats had spent most of the night with their noses in front, and had gone in the more fancied team, they were incredibly well-behaved in defeat. There was not a harsh word spoken, and certainly no hint of anything physical. It may have helped that the Socceroos were the better side on the night. It may have been a fondness for a team that does boast so many with Croatian heritage. The good sportsmanship from the red and white army certainly contributed to the perfection of the night.

We played out the full ninety minutes (plus injury time) in the bowels of the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion and then made the reluctant decision to leave. ‘Ich liebe Dich’ I said to Tam, which is how you say ‘Volim te’ in German. ‘I mog Di ganz arg!’ she replied which is how you say ‘Ich liebe Dich’ in a Swabian South German dialect. She gave me a kiss. And then, out of the darkness, we were attacked by a drop-bear.

‘Yeeeeeaaaaaaaaahhhhhhsssss!’ it said, throwing a headlock over us both. It was hot, yellow and hysterical. ‘We did it! We did it! Unbelievable! How unbelievable!

It was Pickers of the Athens airport disaster. He’d made it. He’d scalped a ticket and been there for our qualification to the second stage of the tournament. It was just as he’d announced on that table in Munich. He doesn’t give up, the boy Pickers.

Picture 242 pre game

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