Warning: The following post may be interpreted by some as bitter and elitist.
So I went to the Australia - Japan match last night. Not under duress mind you. But it was a strange experience. But let's start from the top.
I had a fair few choices as to who to go with... but first in and best dressed was an Internet associate of mine from Perth via Adelaide... or is that Adelaide via Perth... nevermind. I'd delayed in purchasing a ticket for some reason, maybe to see if others wanted to join us, but they didn't. So Great Southern Stand about five rows back in what would normally be the Punt Road End forward pocket about 30 to 40 metres out. Tickets at $42 a pop.
But first things first. I arrange to meet with Chris at Federation Square, where he'll be with some of the Austadiums crew. They're friendly enough, even if the first call is 'no club colours' (lacking any Socceroo gear, I was wearing me South scarf and beanie) and one member asked to try to on my glasses (you wouldn't ask a paraplegic if you could try out his wheelchair... then again I don't know you, so you might - but I think you get my point regardless).
More than the flakes of ash landing on me from their cigarettes, what I found most interesting about this encounter was the lack of football talk that wasn't A-League related. It's winter, it's the A-League off season, so what else entered the discussion? Local soccer? Not one bit. The group, with members from five states, discussed mostly WAFL, SANFL, VAFA etc... and the myriad inter city politics of the Green and Gold Army.
I did get grilled though by one chap about why a club would choose to take up the role of outsiders by focusing just on one ethnic community. How to answer a question like that asked with the earnestness of the converted? I said they were treated like outsiders from the start so why wouldn't they choose to head down that path? And if this is a genuinely pluralist society, why should there be barriers on the existence of a diverse range of clubs, including those who choose to cater for a very small segment of the population? Historically these clubs have a shelf life of about 40-60 years - why not let it be on their own head if they fail due to the restrictive nature of their clientele? Mind you, he didn't seem to recognise the fact that ethnic clubs were obliged to change their names in the mid 1990s... and at various time before that too, but that's another story.
Some of us headed down towards the new Swan Street Stadium under construction. There's happy snaps of the sporting precinct, and jokes made at the expense of the legends of Australian tennis, who have bronze busts which often don't look very much like those who they're supposed to resemble - except for John Newcombe, but you could just make a bronze bit of his moustache and everybody would know who it is anyway. The stadium itself is an interesting work in progress. There's glimpses of what it might end up looking like that aren't an 'artist's impression', but I guess no matter how cliched it sounds, we'll only really know what it'll look like when it's done. A stadium unlike anything built in Australia thus far I'm guessing, not necessarily a bad thing.
We then end up at the Corner Hotel, where the Green and Gold Army have decided to decamp for pre-match drinks and stuff. It's not a hostile environment, but there's something alienating about the experience - there's boasting about trip made to countless overseas Socceroos matches and as based on mere extra sensory perception as this is - and I don't like that at all - the stench of newness. There is nothing old about these fans, it's all new and it all seems to have come out of nowhere. But that's impossible, they must have come from somewhere - but where? There's hints in the day's discussions and perhaps on the countless Internet forum debates about this but the university student in me is starting to kick in, and I want something empirical, not emotional and based on personal experience and observations.
There's an SBS camera crew floating around with Mike Tomalaris interviewing people - I ponder for a moment whether I should get up and try and get on tv with my South stuff, but I'm no media whore, and besides, would they have even included me? Opportunity lost perhaps but we'll never know, because I'm dragged back to discussion on South and the A-League and B-Leagues. What's in store in the future for South? I don't know, because soccer keeps changing in this country, but hopefully with the stadium redevelopment we can be in a great position to take on any challenge, a reasonable enough answer. A brief rundown of the history the V, B, Eastern Seaboard leagues and their viability, and what scuttled them for my Canberran inquisitor.
And then the question that everyone's been waiting for - why don't you support the A-League? I run through my list of justifications, about atmosphere, and culture and whatever else my feeble mind can dredge up - but the best answer is of course that it's not my club. I have a club. It's South Melbourne. It's been my club since I was about eight years old. It's not entirely because I'm Greek - because by rights I should have been a Heidelberg fan like my old man - but it's the club, it's my club. I did give the new thing a go - but it wasn't mine, it was someone else's, for those who didn't have something. I had something, I have something, why the need to take on something else? South Melbourne is sufficient to my needs, more than sufficient in fact. My initial curiosity notwithstanding, the fact that I already had a club was merely reinforced with my season long experiment. Did I get through to my opposite number, a former Northern Spirit fan for whom the politics of ethnicity and football are worked into seemingly neat little packages, and thus supporting Sydney FC is a logical conclusion? I don't know, but I think there's some sort of breakthrough, a small opening in the time-space continuum that separates us.
Chris and I then head out for something eat. We walk up Swan Street and decide on the Mexicali Rose. I like the vibe of the place, but the food is a little pricey for what they're putting forth, especially portion wise. My pollo con avocado is quite nice, except someone's over grilled the chicken so that it's tough as hell. Overall not a terrible experience, and we can't just eat pub and cafe food all the time, can we now?
We make the trek towards the ground, and we arrive well before kickoff. After just getting though the gate I get this text message from a mate 'Lol at all th cocks w footy gear on'. Our seats are good. Real good considering how late I bought them. And we get four or five Greeks in the row behind us, who happen to have a sense of humour as well as some sense of history - a discussion they have about the lack of Greek Australian players lets me rip out a reference to Eric Hristodoulou which garners some recognition, an occurrence far removed from everything else that day.
The game itself is by no means spectacular. Australia's first half is simply dreadful, and we're getting killed down our left hand side. Not that Japan is playing scintillating stuff, but they deserve their lead regardless. The 2nd half is a vast improvement from the Socceroos, but the old Verbeekisms are still in plentiful supply... little width, slow movement of the ball, hit and hope skied balls to Kennedy. The Green and Gold Army barely raise a whimper throughout most of the game - sure you could hear them, but it was hardly stirring stuff. The Japanese support was evident, but also not particularly amazing. The flares amuse some but not me. There's some members of the Fanatics to my right, but for once they are not the most offensive people in the stadium. That award goes the knobs on our left who grow weary of the game quite early on and start persisting with attempts at getting a Mexican Wave going. Timmy Cahill does what he does best and gets Australia out of another hole, though to be fair Australia's 2nd half was better than Japan's 2nd. The 70,000 string crowd seems mostly content, but I worry about taking that style and form to the World Cup. I train and taxi it home, try to keep my eyes open to watch the Spain vs Iraq match but I give in. Maybe that's what they want us to do.