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THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL
o you know how long it took for the ball to travel from John Aloisi’s left boot to the back of the net on that magical November night, 2005, at Sydney’s Telstra Stadium? 0.487 seconds. Four hundred and eighty seven thousandths of a second. An elongated blink. An abbreviated sneeze. A boarding pass takes longer than 0.487 seconds to slide through a scanner. It’s possible to fully recline an aeroplane seat in less than 0.487 seconds, although not if you prefer to pause and apologise to the nice American lady behind for squeezing her dinner tray. Somewhere in the middle of those Aloisi-propelled 487 thousandths of a second, I knew I was going to Germany. Given the sweetness of the contact, Aloisi, I reckon, had nutted out his travel plans even earlier and by the time I’d caught up he had already made the historic decision to tear off his clothes and head for elsewhere, fast. ‘We’re going! We’re going!’ I screamed into the gut of a Scotsman called Drew, who’d evidently been in the country long enough to be screaming his own incoherent noises into someone else’s gut. But what I also meant was ‘I’m going, I’m going.’ The World Cup ﬁnals in Germany, Welt Meisterschaft 2006. I’d followed the boys to Montevideo in 2001. I was perched in the back row in Sydney. And now, thanks to the glorious non-alignment of a diving Fabian Carini and a bullet of a penalty, I could follow them to football fans’ nirvana — the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
How did I discover that the kick took 0.487 seconds from boot to net? Well, ﬂights from Australia to pretty much anywhere are long, tedious affairs and in the rariﬁed airspace just short of the Kuala Lumpur stopover, I found myself dropping in and out of bleary, Temazepem-fuelled bouts of introspection. What would a windswept Orville Wright have made of these nameless crunchy salty things that come in a little tear-packet, some of which are green? Would he have seen them as a needless in-ﬂight luxury, less important than say, goggles? Perhaps, a century later, he would understand they were worth eating just for the sake of ﬁlling in ﬁfty seconds of tedium, for getting an impatient man ﬁfty seconds closer to Germany? I stared at the oversized plane on the map of the Indian Ocean. If I sort of went cross-eyed I could sort of will it towards Malaysia. I grappled with existential notions of time and space, and whether my beautiful partner Tamsin Molesworth ─ asleep and eight weeks pregnant with a foetus called Gene ─ would mind if I stole her nameless crunchy salty things. Another packet, another ﬁfty seconds. Tam would be with me for the group stages of the tournament. It’d been love at ﬁfth sight back in 1999, with me being the main culprit in meetings one to four. We got there eventually however, and in the ensuing years, I’d converted her to the round ball cause in a way that I’d been unable to convert her to Aussie Rules or cricket or whiskers in the basin. She said it was because the rules were simple and the objects easy to follow. I suspected it was because of soccer’s superior fashion sense and a not-so-secret crush for Mark Schwarzer. Before we left for Germany, Tam made me model two long sleeve tops, a red and a black. As I spun around the living room, she nodded appreciatively. ‘They both look terriﬁc. You look like Schwarzer in both of them.’ How did I ever wind up this happy? I wasn’t just alive, but an alive member of a dominant species living in a wealthy country with a loving family in a strong relationship expecting a healthy baby en route to the greatest sporting event on the planet. At some point between here and the primordial slime, any number of sliding doors could have slammed shut to douse the dream, to place me somewhere other than in the perfection of the here and now. It was worth considering where things had gone so right.
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I decided to work backwards, starting with Aloisi’s penalty. The primordial slime is tricky, and besides I had Aloisi’s penalty on DVD. It’s not that we wouldn’t have qualiﬁed had he missed ─Schwarzer seemed to have access to any number of miracles that night ─ it’s just that I wouldn’t have been around to see it. I’m convinced that just before Johnny reached the spot, I was on the verge of a heart attack. All the key indicators were there ─ red face, shortness of breath, chest pain. Admittedly after Schwarzer’s second save, I did have eight constricting arms wrapped around me (six belonging to three mates from university, a couple to the hysterical Scotsman) and even with that octopus aboard, I was still somehow jumping. Yet I’m convinced that the symptoms were real. I wasn’t long for this world. Aloisi, with his perfectly measured run-up, decided his country’s fate and mine. He did it ─ in 487 thousandths of a second from boot to net. I know the exact timing thanks to a laptop computer, a DVD of the game, a digital watch, a pen borrowed from a ﬂight attendant (almond eyes, J-Lo ﬁgure), a vomit bag (for recording the times), headphones to keep it private, and a strange, head-in-the-clouds preoccupation with the idea that in sport as in life, the microseconds that matter. The analysis began somewhere over Java, and modesty aside, the measurements were ﬁrst class given the limitations of an economy seat. Beep beep. Beep beep. I had stopwatch experience from primary school, a veteran of the game where you try to press the start/stop button twice in the quickest time possible. Who could forget my historic 0.07 in Mr McAuliffe’s Grade 3-4 composite at Deepdene Primary School in the second term of 1981. That experience was standing me in good stead here. The ﬁrst number recorded on the sick bag was 0.45. Stop. Rewind. Play. Simon Hill’s voice trembled with the proximity of it all. ‘With this kick, John Aloisi can send Australia to the World Cup.’ Button on. Button off. This time, the reading was 0.56. I replayed the kick again, Craig Foster still panicking about Simon Hill’s maths. ‘Are you sure? It’s four to two?’ Then Simon’s joke about maths under pressure. Then that magniﬁcent strike and beautiful bulging net. I let the tape run. Foster spoke for the nation.
‘Yeeeeeeeeeeeesssssssssssssss! Joooooohn!! Come on! Go on my son! Go on the boys! Come on Australia! Johnny Warren! They’ve done it.’ I rewound yet again. Every time Foster roared, I giggled and felt the faint tug of tears. Slowly, methodically, I recorded my data. A few minutes later, the sick bag read as follows ─ 0.45, 0.56, 0.51, 0.52, 0.44, 0.45, 0.45, 0.54, 0.57, 0.42. After ten trials, the steward needed her pen back. ‘May I have another pen?’ I asked. The ﬁnal averaging was still to be done. She tucked the retrieved pen down the front of her tunic, and headed off in the direction of a wider pen community. Unfortunately, she failed to return, so I asked another steward, one of smaller stature, with pale blue eye shadow making a takeover bid for the top half of her face. ‘Excuse me. Could I please have a pen?’ I was very polite. She moved to take her pen from the front of her tunic. ‘No, not that one,’ I said instinctively, remembering I’d already had problems with monopolising a hostie’s personal pen. ‘Oh … sorry,’ she said, looking down at her cleavage. Oh god, I’d mistakenly given the impression that I was rejecting the pen because it had been hooked inside her top. ‘No, it’s not that!’ I said awkwardly, and then pulled up. ‘It’s just that … I’m looking for a pen I can keep. A pen that’s not yours.’ She smiled, disbelievingly. She glanced at the DVD, with the frozen image of a half-naked Aloisi dominating the screen. ‘I’ll get you your pen.’ The blue eyeshadowed one disappeared behind the curtain searching for pens, which meant that pen retrieval was now occupying about a ﬁfth of the cabin staff on Malaysian Airlines ﬂight MH148 to Kuala Lumpur. A minute or so had passed when J-Lo reappeared with not one but two pens. Smiling thanks, I took delivery, and began averaging my stopwatch results. I’d barely begun when I heard a voice. ‘Excuse me sir, do you need these?’ Eyeshadow was back, with two more public domain pens. Given I was gripping a pen and had another rattling around my dinner tray, the only thing to do was again knock her back. ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve actually got a couple of pens now.’
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She smiled a tense, service industry smile. ‘Here ─ you have these pens as spares,’ she said, tucking them into the seat pocket. ‘Now anything else? A drink perhaps?’ I shook my head with embarrassment, trying to bury myself in my calculations. Dropping off the top and bottom ends, the sick bag told me that a 0.49 second journey was all it had taken to book the Socceroos a place in the World Cup. You don’t have to be Galileo Galilei to have noticed that a decimal point seems to have gone missing somewhere between Java and J-Lo. Yes it’s true ─ my digital watch only spoke the language of hundredths. But I watched the kick one more time and realised I was measuring from spot to back of net, whereas really, the goal should count from the time the ball crossed the line. Besides, on a ﬁnal viewing it felt a little quicker than 0.49, so I sliced off a few thousandths. And perhaps most importantly, a good story, a great memoir is in the detail. And this memoir is going to three decimal places. The DVD played on through my headphones and Simon Hill expressed the gratitude we all felt, but with the restrained eloquence that is his trademark. ‘At last. At long, long last. Thirty-one years, four months and 24 days have passed since Australia ended its campaign at the 1974 World Cup and now ─ ﬁnally, belatedly, wonderfully and joyfully ─ Australia is back on the biggest stage of all.’ ‘This is a team from every community in Australia. It’s our team, and our team is going to the World Cup. Johnny, you told us so.’ It’s the expression that played backdrop to the whole campaign. Johnny Warren was the Socceroos best player during that famous 1974 campaign. He then spent the remaining 30 years of his life ﬁghting against what he described as ‘entrenched cultural and institutional resistance’. It was a ﬁght that had many low points. The Socceroos discovered new and miraculous ways not to qualify for World Cups. The old National Soccer League reeled from scandal to scandal. The oval-ball brigade used media dominance and perceptions of ethnic violence to brand it as a game for ‘sheilas, wogs and poofters’. But Johnny said that the dark days would not last. He said that Australia would sort out its national league and create a competition that could
retain players and attract the masses who loved football. He said that Australia would qualify for another World Cup, and enjoy regular competition as part of the Asian Confederation. He said that the Socceroos would experience a new dawn ─ embraced by the nation as the national team playing the one truly international game. He kept ﬁghting the ﬁght when he was sick with terminal cancer, adding ‘When I’m up in that football ﬁeld in the sky, just remember I told you so.’ Tragically, Johnny Warren died in November 2004. He saw the A-League launched, but missed the joy of November 2005. Les Murray delivered the eulogy, and rephrased Warren’s famous words: We all thought football and the passing of a footballer would never have such an impact in your country. But we were wrong. And you told us so… Times are a changing in your beloved game and there’s a fresh wind blowing in a way we would never have believed. But you told us so… We would never have thought that a million would play the beautiful game in a country that jilted you. But we were wrong and you told us so… We all thought that your country, the one that shunned you as a wog and a sheila, would never embrace your faith. But we were wrong again. And you told us so… You told us it should be called football and so it shall be. You told us so… You told us to look north and interact with our neighbours in Asia. And we are doing it. Because you told us so… So what happens now, my friend, my soul mate? You told us all this and it all came true. *** Remarkably, my stopwatch shenanigans only qualify as the second oddest thing that was going on over the Indian Ocean at that moment.
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I uncovered the oddest, when I spotted J-Lo inching down the aisle with the breakfast trolley. Knowing Tam’s love for reconstituted egg and things that look like tomato, I placed my hand gently on her hip. ‘Tam, wake up, breakfast is coming.’ No answer, so I patted her on the tummy. ‘Tam. You probably should eat something.’ And that’s when I felt it. Her stomach was no longer made of human ﬂesh. Under her airline blanket, she was mumbling something about feeling sick and not being hungry, but breakfast was suddenly the last of my concerns. I wanted to know how Gene had transformed its mother’s belly into a rigid unyielding square. I ran my hand again across her stomach. I was now just about 100 per cent certain. Tam was wearing plate mail. ‘Tam, are you wearing armour of some sort?’ Her brown eyes ﬂipped open, awake now. Her cheeks were the colour of things that look like tomato. ‘Of course I’m not wearing armour.’ ‘Well … what’s this then?’ With a David Copperﬁeld ﬂourish, I threw back the airline blanket, and pointed to her midriff. Beneath her outer layer, there was clearly something solid and square. ‘Okay,’ she said quietly. ‘But I know you. You’re not allowed to use it in the book.’ ‘I won’t use it, Tam,’ I said, carefully omitting the words ‘I promise’. I couldn’t really give a guarantee. If the kid had created a hard outer shell, I had a duty to science to explain what it was all about. Tam sighed, pulled her stomach in, and with a whip of her hand produced what appeared to be an oversized, inﬂexible, grey mouse pad from under her jumper. ‘It’s a lead blanket,’ she said, wearily. I nodded slowly. A lead blanket. Why was my partner travelling with a lead blanket? ‘Mum got it for me. It protects against cosmic radiation,’ Tam said, anticipating my question. ‘Gene’s brain is developing this week, and I read that cosmic radiation is equivalent to two X-rays when you’re up at this altitude for this length of time. I told Mum that stat, and she bought me this.’
‘It looks uncomfortable,’ I said. ‘It is.’ We both paused to behold the lead blanket. ‘But if cosmic radiation is such a problem, wouldn’t all doctors ground all pregnant women in the ﬁrst trimester?’ Tam was on the defensive now. ‘American Airlines grounds pregnant cabin crew. Gene’s brain is developing this week! Would you have liked to have the equivalent of two X-rays while your brain was developing?’ I couldn’t work that out, and that was with a brain that hadn’t been exposed to cosmic radiation while it was developing. What I did know was that after spending the pre-ﬂight pack trying to keep weight down, it now seemed likely we would be hauling a lead blanket around Germany. ‘How much does it weigh?’ ‘One kilogram.’ A faint smile started to break on Tam’s lips. One kilogram was a full 1/13th of her total luggage. ‘The woman on security at Tullamarine didn’t really know what to make of it. I think it showed up as a fairly alarming metallic blotch on the X-ray of the bag.’ Tam tucked her lead blanket back into position, and pulled the airline blanket back over the top. In some ways, I felt bad for teasing her. The lead blanket was an act of love for our unborn child, a sign of self-sacriﬁce and generosity that was well in advance of any parenting instinct developing in me. But on another level, I was glad I’d teased her. Lead blankets are weird, and cosmic radiation is the only shot we have for producing a kid with special powers, like The Incredible Hulk or Zinedine Zidane. *** Asia disappeared beneath us, then the Alps. Europe beckoned, when King Kong froze on the screen (only marginally less entertaining than the non-frozen state) and the words ‘cabin announcement’ pasted on the screen. The pilot’s heavily accented voice crackled through the cabin. ‘I have the results from the match Costa Rica versus Germany ─ the ﬁrst match. Would anyone like to know the results?’ The people
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who didn’t want to hear the result were going to have to mobilise quickly. ‘The result is … Costa Rica won … against Germany … for … it’s a good game to begin the championship.’ At least that’s how I heard it. I shook Tam awake. ‘Costa Rica won!’ I was screaming. ‘That’s got to be the biggest opening game upset in history!’ ‘Costa Rica won against Germany!’ Tam was struggling with both morning sickness that was following the sun and my sudden arrival in her personal space. A German man who introduced himself as Pieter leaned across the aisle and into our conversation. As soon as he spoke, I knew he was German. ‘I think the pilot said, “Costa Rica one, against Germany … four.” Maybe you shouldn’t be too happy yet!’ He gave his armrest a hearty slap. I retraced the pilot’s announcement in my head. ‘The result is … Costa Rica one … against Germany … four … it’s a good game to begin the championship.’ Pieter, a jolly-faced type with some encrusted red wine residue on his top lip, was laughing. He was also wearing slippers. ‘You don’t like Germany,’ he said. ‘You don’t want Germany to win?’ ‘No, it’s certainly not that.’ I said. What was I going to pull out here? A Costa Rican relative? It was unlikely my pigmentation would stand up to that one. A love for Paulo Wanchope because of all that he did for Manchester City, not to mention his record as the leading all-time goalscorer for Costa Rica? In the end, I gaped, and waited for Pieter to ﬁll the hole. ‘Maybe you just like the underdog?’ Tam nodded. This was the lifeline to grapple for. ‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘It’s nice when the underdogs win. You know, we’re Australians, so we’ll be underdogs here too.’ Pieter scratched his aeroplane stubble. ‘Germans know that many people don’t want us to win. We know that for many people we are the boring Germans who don’t know how to have fun and who are always thought of as having started the wars. Well, we hope you come
to Germany and you see something else. We are Europeans now. The war is 60 years ago. And the team – it is very attacking. It isn’t like the old teams that just try to score one goal and then hold out. I think you will like our team. Klinsmann has them very ﬁt. And I think you will like our country. We are quite funny you know?’ I laughed, because it’s quite funny to describe every one of your countrymen as ‘quite funny’. I also thrust a hand out across the aisle and told Pieter that as I was a guest in his country, I’d barrack for Germany as my second team. This was a lie, and I suspect Pieter knew it. Even leaving aside the war, (and honestly it was Pieter who mentioned it, I didn’t say a thing), the Germans had already won the Jules Rimet Trophy three times, and on two of those occasions dispatched teams which had captured the hearts of the footballing world. The two most celebrated non-winning teams of all time are Hungary’s ‘Magniﬁcent Magyars’ of the 1950s (the two forwards in that team, Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis, averaged a combined 2.1 goals per game for their entire international careers together) and the Cruyff-led Dutch ‘Total Football’ outﬁt of the seventies. Both teams lost to West Germany in World Cup ﬁnals, in 1954 and 1974 respectively ─ their more ﬂamboyant, attacking styles laid low by the German football machine. Even the 1990 German team, which in the aftermath of reuniﬁcation could stake some sort of claim for the support of neutrals, served up the most boring ﬁnal in the history of the tournament. Clinical, drilled, disciplined, organised, tough, uncompromising. The German football team gathers adjectives that might equally describe the bad guys in Die Hard, because that’s how the non-German football world regards them, as baddies. Never mind that ‘The Kaiser’, Franz Beckenbauer, might be the most creative defender of all time, and Gerd Müller scored his (until recently) record number of World Cup ﬁnals goals in just two campaigns. We don’t want to know. The courtroom of the terrace is not one that cares to hear from the defence. Football needs its baddies and the Germans are them. The prosecution rests, your Honour. Of course I didn’t tell Pieter this. Instead, I congratulated him on the win, and told him that come the quarter-ﬁnals, he’d probably see me on the streets of Berlin with a German tricolor painted on each cheek.
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We fell silent, gently prising our eyes apart, both knowing that to chat now would mean taking the conversation all the way through to baggage claim. The seat belt sign binged on, and before long we had commenced our descent. ‘This is your captain. Ladies and gentlemen. We begin our descent into Frankfurt, and I must say I have had some questions about the result of the game as some people did not hear.’ So I wasn’t the only one. ‘The ﬁrst game was won by Germany with four goals, to Costa Rica, two. I am sorry for my earlier mistake.’ ‘Go Deutschland,’ I said, giving the air a little punch, smiling at Pieter. ‘Go Deutschland,’ he said merrily. ‘Think of this, my friend. In 20 minutes time, we will all be at the World Cup.’ *** ‘I’ve got a green and golden ticket,’ I squeaked at Tamsin, rejoicing in the fact that FIFA had chosen a colour scheme for the cardboard that wouldn’t clash with our face paint. In fact, I had three tickets, one for each of the Australian group matches, and a voucher for the round of 16 and quarter-ﬁnal if the Aussies happened to get that far. I replaced the tickets in the pristine envelope (I’d steamed it open with the care of an operative in a John Le Carré novel) resealed it, and then reopened it to feel the rush again. Tamsin had her own tickets, and I took a photo of her holding them above her head. All around the ticket collection room at the Frankfurt Airport Sheraton, other Aussie fans were doing the same. Over in the Z queue, my friend Rita Zammit was dancing a little jig, not unlike Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Her 16-year-old son Thomas looked on impassively, not unlike Grandma Josephine, waiting for the dance to ﬁnish. While we’re on Grandpa Joe, does anyone else think that Grandpa Joe didn’t take enough heat in that ﬁlm for staying in bed for 20 years and then only getting up when the good times started to roll? If he could dance with a golden ticket, why couldn’t he dance while helping serve up the turnip soup? For mine ─
it’s high time for some historical revisionism insofar as Grandpa Joe is concerned. In terms of her support for football in Australia, Rita Zammit is anything but a fair weather, Grandpa Joe type of fan. We became friends in 1996 when we both worked for the same ﬁrm of solicitors, Minter Ellison. Within months I’d discovered that this petite, reasoned, analytical, socially-gifted colleague was a raving lunatic as soon as one of her teams was in action. Currently, her teams are manifold. She’s the team manager of the Essendon Royals under-16s, for which son Thomas is the right back. She’s had a seat at all Melbourne Victory home games where she loves Archie Thompson and forgives Danny Allsopp. The daughter of Italian-born Angela and Frank Incerti, she was once a passionate supporter of the once-proud Juventus, and is now wondering what went wrong and whether SBS will show any Serie B highlights on Sunday afternoons. She has screamed for Italy at every World Cup and European Championship since 1970 (meaning she conveniently missed the embarrassment of North Korea 1966) and can name the starting line-up of the victorious 1982 Italian World Cup winning team, not only in order of position, but bone structure as well. Then there’s the Socceroos. In the mayhem after qualiﬁcation in November last year, I didn’t see Rita at our rendezvous point until I glimpsed the ﬂash of yellow that was her 163cm frame ﬂying through the air, shrieking like a disturbed baby koala. We ended up in a position that would have impressed Torville and Dean ─ both her arms wrapped around my neck, her legs around my chest, screaming and crying. The screaming was because we won. She generally cries ─ win, lose or draw. She also provided me with the football story that changed my life. In 1997, we were practising the law deep inside Melbourne’s Rialto Building. I was enjoying more square metreage of window space per minute of experience than any lawyer in history and yet I wasn’t particularly happy in the job. Some days, I repossessed houses. Others, I wrote letters of demand threatening to repossess houses. The highlights of my legal career to that point were: Stellar performances as Santa Claus at back-to-back partners’
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picnics. To quote one partner, ‘Tony ─ you’re the best goddamn Santa Claus we’ve got.’ Sending out a letter on ﬁrm letterhead, signed by a partner, with a date in the masthead that read ‘27 Rocktober 1997’. If my boss had spotted that I’d changed the auto-generated date, I had my excuse ready: ‘I listen to a lot of commercial radio.’ Chasing down a man with a peg leg and long white beard on William Street so as to serve him with a statement of claim, and then throwing myself on his bonnet, like a character in The Sweeney, to prevent him from driving off. If these were the highlights, I needed a new career. As luck would have it, the ABC television program Race Around the World was looking for contestants for a second series, and I decided to apply. Race was a travel show for amateur documentary makers. You had to race around the world to put together 10 four-minute stories in 10 different countries. It was trip of a lifetime stuff – 10 countries, 100 days, completely alone. The show had forged media careers for several of those who contested the ﬁrst series. To submit an application, I had to make a four-minute video about someone or something. I had lunch with Rita that week, and she said that I should do a proﬁle of Thomas’s under-seven soccer coach, a newly arrived (since departed), 45-year-old Italian by the name of Paulo. Paulo was manic, quite possibly a maniac. He had played Serie C football in Italy and coached six-year-old boys as though they were the Azzurri. Despite the fact the boys could barely read, he conducted whiteboard sessions, describing why a 4-4-2 structure suited their current personnel. He berated them for staying up too late, cursed them for not keeping to position. He urged the six-year-olds to watch their diets, recommending, bizarrely, that they consume ‘tea and dry biscuits two hours before the game ─ and nothing else’. Best of all, this was all done through a translator, because Paulo could not speak a word of English. Naturally, the translators were drawn from among the parents. On the day of ﬁlming, it was Rita. And so when Paulo bellowed at the kids:
‘Marca il giocatare. Porca miseria!’ Rita translated it to the six-year-olds as: ‘Keep it up. You’re all trying really hard. You’re going really well.’ What he really said was: ‘Mark your players. Fucking hell!” That night, we went back to Rita and her husband Alex’s house and over three or four hours, she translated my interviews with Paulo. ‘What will you do if you win this competition?’ she asked, as the tedium of camera time-codes bore down on us. ‘I’ll buy you a ticket to Rome,’ I said casually. ‘Really?’ she asked. ‘Really. But 20,000 people have downloaded entry forms. I’m not sure you’ll have to worry too much about it.’ This is the bit in the story where you expect me to say that against the odds, I secured a place on Race Around The World, had the trip of a lifetime, stopped off in 10 locations including Paris for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, won the series, and then true to my word, bought Rita her ticket to Rome, which she duly traded for this ticket to Frankfurt and FIFA World Cup 2006. Well most of that is true. I was selected as a Racer for the show, did enjoy the trip of a lifetime ─ jetting off to Bolivia, Idaho, Alaska, Italy, Lebanon, France, Israel, Kenya, India and China. I did have Paris and the 1998 World Cup to myself (none of the other seven contestants shared my love of football) and ended up attending the France versus Saudi Arabia group match in the Stâde de France. Les Bleus won that match 4-0, the great Zinedine Zidane was red carded, and I was there ─ surely a once in a lifetime experience. And at the end of the series, I somehow had emerged as the winner. I am still planning to buy Rita a ticket to Rome. It really is something that’s well up on my to-do list. It’s simply a matter of getting the funds together, consulting with her, and ﬁnding a time that suits both Rita and Rome. For now though, we were ‘going Dutch’ barracking for Australia in Germany. We’d both been successful in the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) accommodation and tickets stacks-on-the-mill, and for the ﬁrst part of the World Cup would be on tour together. Robbie
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Slater and Frank Farina were billed as leading the group, but given the numbers involved (the bloke in the red shirt who handed me the ticket envelope said there were 9000-plus picking up tickets that weekend) I wasn’t expecting Frank or Robbie to be turning the bacon at the hotel and asking me whether I liked my eggs sunny side up. For the second half of the World Cup, my plan was to strike out alone. No tickets, no accommodation, no Tamsin, no Thomas or Rita. I was going to rediscover the Race Around the World spirit, but over a palatably shorter period, and in the convenience of a single country which has invited the world over for a month long slumber party. ‘Would you and Tam like an espresso?’ Rita asked, as we wound our way out of the Sheraton, heading for our hotel. We were new in Germany and foolishly optimistic that we might ﬁnd a good coffee. ‘Um, have you got any euros?’ I said. ‘I looked for an ATM, but couldn’t ﬁnd one.’ I checked with Tam. She needed a bank too. Rita paused with her luggage trolley, pulled out a diary and made a note. ‘I’ll put it on the tab. One espresso ─ inﬂated hotel price. One ticket to Rome.’
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aiserslautern 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. 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 a friend also wearing a 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’ qualiﬁcation 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 The Age, denouncing the brieﬂy-won full spot
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for the Oceania confederation and arguing for our chance to ﬁght it out as part of Asia. And then FIFA had whipped the spot away again and I’d 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 out of it, victorious in the face of a category ﬁve Los Celestes cyclone, and now it was THE DAY. The day I’d dreamed about. In my dreams, I had skipped the mundane details like breakfast. Had it been part of my fantasy, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed the pre-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 it were made known to Jason Culina, will not make him 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, I can affect such vagaries as Craig Moore’s judgement 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 distance. 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 degrees. 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 Nonno Charlie gave it to me at the airport. He’s had major lifesaving 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 his 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,
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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 12 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 existentialist Frenchman from Algeria, Albert Camus’
much-quoted line: ‘In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite side’; 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 someone, 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. ***
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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 ‘10 German Bombers’ song, which England coach Sven Göran Eriksson 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, so you can see it’s just like 10 Green Bottles but historically and 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 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 are 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 integrating two sets of fans dissolves potential choirs. Maybe it’s because the thrill-a-minute, wham-bam action of Aussie Rules doesn’t sit well with singing, 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 is 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, 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
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pork and the mist of barbecue betrayed the culinary emphasis of the day. We were in south-west Germany in the Bundesland of RhinelandPfalz, 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 30 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 kick-off, early drinking might lead to later drinking which could possibly jeopardise 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 Hornby) 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 90 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’. This was the epicentre 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 it’s 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 formation, and Sweden’s Zlatan Ibramovic spraying his shots, 0-0 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
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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 nice, quiet sleep.’ ─ Neville Chamberlain, 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 will be remembered.’ ─ Harry 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 likes nothing more to kick back on some intergalactic 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 1-0 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 pregame atmosphere I’d ever been a part of, the temptation was to throw the Mozz away, to let my guard down and scream, ‘Aussies 2-0!’ 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 foosball) 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 1-0 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 18thranked 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-WalterStadion 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
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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 20-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 one, Mark Schwarzer.’ ‘Yeeeeeeees!’ ‘Number two, Lucas Neill.’ ‘Yeeeeeees!’ Number three, Craig Moore.’ ‘Yeeeeeees!’ 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.’ ‘Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesssssss!’ 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 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 19th 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 12th 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 the 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 right foot, and then on the rebound ─ again with his left.
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‘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 unravelling. 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 halfway 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 0-0. 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, Schwarzer 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 our 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
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tackled by the fourth ofﬁcial to stop him plying some justice ClintEastwood style against ofﬁcials further up the chain of command. ‘You know what? I think it might have been Schwarzer’s error,’ some renegade said as the goal was replayed again. ‘I’m not sure that’s a foul. Schwarzer 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 Schwarzy had been barrelled. We were in the mood for some lynchin’. *** Although some blamed Schwarzer, 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. 10. 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!’
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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 Schwarzer, just him and the keeper. ‘Yeeeeeesss!’ we screamed as the shot screamed narrowly wide. Now the barracking was back at full volume. ‘Aus-stray-lee-ahhhh, ‘la-la-la-la-la-la-la’ 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 10 million screams across Australia. I was exhausted now. We’d been bouncing for seven minutes and, in the 38 degrees 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 up 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. ‘3-1, 3-1 3-1,’ 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 the Champions, a syrupy World Cup anthem the organisers had sculpted from Go West. We sang along, changing the word ‘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 70minute 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 16th 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 16-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-
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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 12 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 30th 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 travelling 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 11 years older, and he’s 17 years younger, and just for a moment, I wanted to feel down with the kids. Besides drinking is legal in Germany at 16, 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.