Or why does the Mallee have no local orange juice when it has so many oranges?
The really good thing was that I got to choose the vast majority of the music - shame about the bass on Ian Syson's car stereo being adjusted to such an extent that it was negligible, and thus the poorly recorded bass part for The Autumns' emo/dreampop/shoegaze anthem Embracing Winter didn't have the requisite effect.
Anyway, we drove up to Mildura primarily to investigate two points of interest. One, the state of soccer up that way, and two, to investigate more closely, by way of examining cenotaphs and such, names, deaths and records of war service of local soccer players in the First World War 1. I'll say this for roadside country cafes along the road though. They obviously don't think they can make any money on a Sunday morning, because most of them are closed, and those that are open, seem to be run by people who are confused by the very notion of customers.
The eight or so clubs that make up Football Federation Sunraysia almost all train and/or play on the eight or so fields of their local soccer complex. They're the first soccer grounds we've seen in the 600 kilometres we've driven. They're in decent nick considering the amount of use they get - helped by the use of reclaimed/recycled water. We get there early enough to see several juniors and womens games in action. It's apparent pretty early on the piece in that even the senior game or two we're going to see are going to be largely participatory events, with few spectators. Our discussions with the majority of locals with though are eerily positive, as if not to be is somehow sacrilegious. Thy don't get much money or respect from the local council, but they're happy with what they have - but still harbour resentment at what some other sports get. Crowds are virtually non-existent, but participation numbers are 'good'. It's only in hints within lengthier discussions that different feelings emerge. The tyranny of distance from Melbourne, and from any other footballing centres is palpable. Senior competition is limited - opportunities for talented juniors are negligible, except with the undertaking of high risk and drastic options such as moving an entire family closer to Melbourne.
The summer league - or champions league as it's calling it self now - doesn't do the job required. There is scant funding for the substantial travel costs required. The local federation has considered fielding a combined side in the metro leagues, but concerns about resources, the integrity of the local competition, and the ability to compete are high. But again there is a dogged optimism - the game is stronger than it's ever been. There are constant references to the absence of ethnic clubs - all of the local essentially having lost or thrown out any ethnic baggage or history, or had it negated by the original club creators.
So after watching few of the early games, we get taken on a bit of tour of some of the spots we're interested in. One is the possible location of the first soccer venue in Mildura, next to railway track. And then to various cenotaphs, looking for names of fallen soldiers - there are plenty of these monuments, but they each seem to specialise in a particular sort of list making enterprise. The are odd inclusions and exclusions, strange omissions of entire wars, and perhaps most strange, the inclusion of a guy our records say made it out of the war, but whom one of the local plaques has as dead.
We make it back in time for what is to be our feature match, Irymple Knights - nee Zagreb Soccer Club - against Three Colours, a southern Italian mob by birthright, but as mentioned earlier no longer very much aware of concerned with its origins - something seen as a strength by the locals. The ages of the players have great variation. There are older heads, and there are those who are comparatively still wet behind the ears The standard veers between kick around amateur and something provisional - but the very essence of its player make up, the narrow field, and the lack of any tactical orientation makes such judgements quite prone to error. That, and most of the forays forward come from counter attacks.
The lack of an edge is perplexing to me. The whole day seems far too social, as if there is little up for stake, and it gives the impression somewhat that the local clubs, rather then being sworn enemies, are more like a party of a larger whole, and that games are more like intraclub matches. That illusion is temporarily broken by a behind the play incident that leaves one Irymple Knight down, and players both from sides and a fair chunk of the few spectators at the game looking for someone to hit, push, or get out of harm's way - both protagonists get sent off, and we later learn through fragments of speech that the instigator more or less had it coming to him. So, while the spectre of soccer violence visited this field too, it was still somewhat different from what we're used to, in that it was strictly an individual thing and not a club thing.
We stroll over to watch the last few seconds of the Mildura United - Nicholl's Point game, which finishes quite quickly. We start a conversation with Chris Tsivoglou - manager and seemingly main man from the club. It used to be a Greek team - Chris claims it dates back to 1916, a date which both astounds and arouses obvious skepticism. That there were Greeks in Mildura at the time is not really in dispute - certainly, when asked of their origins, Chris provides the adequate and safe answer that they came from Egypt and the Greek Islands - like most of the early Greeks in Australia. And there certainly were Greeks in the area by the early 1920s. But still, it goes against so much of what we think we know about the situation. The end of all soccer in the area during the war, the near twenty year gap to the next known Greek-Australian club, Apollo Athletic, born in a much more fertile setting, in terms of both soccer and proximity to Greeks.
The other side of Chris's discussion relates to his and the clubs efforts, with the decision made some years ago, to try and include local indigenous kids in the game. It's an uphill battle. Apart from the costs needed to kit them out - most of the kids coming from a local mission and from situations where they cannot afford it themselves - and the discipline need to make them come every week, as well as the near impossibility of keeping them once aussie rules comes calling. Chris is also the first person we meet who bucks the optimistic trend - he says that the game has gone backwards, the standard, the crowds, and just the overall interest and continuity. People come to the game, primarily for their children, and when their child's tenure is up, leave the game entirely.
It's not a phenomenon unique to the region to be sure. The same thing is happening across the country, but with the sheer weight of numbers many Melbourne clubs for example can hold on - in a place already struggling for players, sponsors and political clout, amongst other things, this lack of continuity compels clubs to stay small scale, and provide a particular kind of soccer experience - transient and fleeting. The visit to the Irymple Knights' clubhouse emphasises this. They're proud of their set up and what they've managed to do - as they should be. But there are few people in attendance around the searing bonfire - some talk about the old days - in this case the 1970s and 1980s - with an odd mixture of nostalgia, regret and dismissal. It was good, but it must be let go - things are better now than they ever were. It's a refrain that contains echoes of New Dawn ideology, but it is in equally large debt to the game's isolation from all sorts of mainstream - soccer, sport, location, importance, relevance.