Through good times and bad with the Socceroos

Despite having one of the worst nicknames in sporting history (and I love a good pun, but that’s not even close), the Socceroos hold the odd place in my heart of being the only Australian national sporting team I have ever really cheered for.

Long before the most recent scandal the Australian cricket team always played with an unpleasant ruthlessness. Or were just too good to offer the emotional ups and downs following a sporting team should provide. The teams from other countries always seemed to have a bit more charisma as well as the classic underdog status.

Same goes for rugby league, where internationals often seem like exercises in ego for Australia. Aussie rules offers its own kind of national pride (it’s even in the name of the sport), but international rules games with Ireland just seem like acts of desperation. Other sports I’ve never really cared enough to watch, and something like the Olympics just allows for ugly displays of patriotic chest-beating (oi oi oi).

I don’t really believe in national allegiance – the idea that just by the fact someone is born on the same land mass as me they share more in common than people born elsewhere doesn’t really make sense; the thought that I somehow share in their success or failure is bizarre.

And yet there’s the Socceroos and the way my heartrate sneakily accelerates when they attack, how it skips when they try to defend. Even the fact that while I have intentionally missed every single television show of the last decade, I make an effort to find somewhere to watch the Socceroos’ big games.

See unlike many Australian sports stars, the Socceroos are underdogs. Underdogs on a global scale (the entire team wouldn’t command as much on the transfer market as superstars Neymar or Paul Pogba). But also underdogs in Australian society. Any soccer lover in Australia can tell you what it’s like – try to find the soccer in the back pages of the newspaper. Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters was the name of legendary former Socceroo Johnny Warren’s autobiography, so-called because they were the names he was called as a white Australian who loved the round ball. I think of Trevor Huon in Simon French’s classic Australian kids novel Cannily, Cannily, whose struggles to fit in at his new school were compounded by the fact he played soccer and not footy.

When I was growing up, being a soccer fan required commitment – it meant getting up/staying up to ridiculous hours to watch games. It meant tuning in to SBS every weekend or buying magazines months after they had come out in Europe to gain insight into the intriguing world of European leagues. It meant tolerating the sport’s petty administrative squabbles and the occasional ethnic sparring of fans. It meant subjecting yourself to the perennial tragedy of the national team’s failures.

I remember seeing Johnny Warren straight-facedly tell the story of a curse put on the Socceroos by an African witch doctor and how that explained the constant disasters. It was a long period of waiting – with hardly any games and even fewer with the best players allowed by their European clubs to play – for the eventual world cup qualifiers that determined whether we could participate in the global soccer party or watch from the outside like wallflowers at a dance.

That moment when it finally came in 2005 against Uruguay – and not only can I still remember jumping out of my seat and around the room, but I also still get goosebumps watching the shootout on youtube – was so special because it released the tension of three decades of failures. That’s what you can hear in the footage as Craig Foster screams his mic levels way into the red, and see as John Aloisi rips of his shirt and starts sprinting around the ground. It wasn’t just about going to the world cup – it was vindication for every migrant who never quite fit in with their rugby loving mates, every kid who preferred chasing the spherical ball to the oval one, every fan who spent their spare time learning how to pronounce “Ruud Gullit” or “Pedrag Mijatovic”.

Australian soccer was never the same afterwards – the national team gained a new respectability; but also that year the A-League started – ushering in a new level of corporate professionalism to the game locally. In 2006, Australia was accepted into the Asian confederation of FIFA, meaning there would be more competitive games and a more forgiving path to world cup qualification.

All positives, but in some ways it lost some of its distinctive character. I liked these clubs with strange names like Marconi and Sydney Olympic and their distinct ethnic histories. I liked the gateway to a whole other world that came from following it. The new clubs were depressingly corporate entities (club bosses included Westfield CEO Frank Lowy and Clive Palmer) with boring names like Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory. It was a little bit like the punk music fan immersed in a whole underground subculture who watch their favourite band become just another bunch of rockstars on a big stage.

The A-League came in promising a new era, and in a way that’s what it has been. But it irks me that people want to forget the contribution to the game that all those old clubs, players and coaches made. The old NSL, which was dissolved to make way for the A-League, was developed by brave visionaries in the 70’s long before aussie rules or either rugby code had been game to build a competition that crossed state borders. People smugly insist on calling the sport “football” as though it’s something we’ve just imported from Europe and have no local tradition of. Many of us though used to follow the National Soccer League, and learned our skills playing soccer on the school field or local park.

I still play in those local parks when I can, but have to admit I am a long way from the most dedicated fan in the country. I can accept that these stakeholders who market the A-League etc do so out of a love of the game and that my sentiments are hardly their top priority. It’s pretty rare that I get around to watching a game, but I can guarantee you that I’ll be watching Australia’s games in the world cup (for once at mercifully reasonable hours). And I’ll be cheering them on, not just out of patriotic pride; but for Trevor Huon, Johnny Warren and all the rest of us who despite it all love Australian soccer.

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