For Joe Gorman and no one else, notwithstanding the public nature of this reluctant salvo.
While I was somewhere between Canberra and Holbrook on a Greyhound coach, Joe Gorman asked me via Twitter to write a story on this event. This was made difficult by a number of factors. My laptop battery threatening to run out of juice; the woman in front of me who wanted to push her seat back down into my crotch; and the fact that now, ten years apart, these two dates - 16/11/2005 and 16/11/2015 - are not momentous moments in time for me, but rather signposts from which to ponder everything that’s happened in between. Under the circumstances, that's probably the most 'bitter' thing anyone can say, which doesn't fit the desired mood of most of Australian soccer's recollection and experience of the event. That I think it's based on a cultivated, carefully thought out point of view and not some sort of reactionary bitterness will not make me feel better about writing about this in any way. It is what it is, which admittedly is not a very academic explanation.
The second leg of the 2005 World Cup qualifier I watched at home, with my dad, at what is now my old house, which itself has been demolished by its new owners. What struck me most about the game at the time, apart from the unaffected joy I felt, was just how lucky we were. I've not bothered to watch the game again, and doubt that I ever will (nor do I have any plans to watch the highly esteemed documentary on the game), but it seemed that every piece of luck that had deserted us over the previous 32 year stretch had been condensed into this game. Being short sighted even with three inch thick lenses, I sat up close to the TV, hoping that we’d win, glad that we did, with no misgivings. In that sense it feels like a lifetime ago, though for me at 32, it’s only one third of a lifetime.
On the way back home from Canberra, I re-read Patrick Mangan’s Offsider, partly for the sake of my stuttering doctoral thesis, but mostly to pass the time instead of staring out the window at the repetitive landscape. In that book, Mangan occasionally branches out from his childhood and adolescent support of Arsenal to talk about watching and covering the Socceroos and Australian soccer during the 1990s. For a book published post-2005, a relative boom period for Australian soccer books, it includes a strange omission – it fails to mention November 16, 2005 at all. Its narrative falls short, and so the book takes no political position on that or any matter for the way the sport would turn out. In its own way, leaving out that date sums up the problem better than most writings on the matter have done – that there was a before and an after. To that I’d add that there was a during, an 'in the moment' quality which we will likely never touch again.
I don't want to change people's experience of the occasion, and to be honest, I couldn't do it no matter how hard I tried - and goodness knows I've tried to get my spiteful (but also annotated) review of Tony Wilson's Australia United published in at least two different print journals. A little reluctantly then, I thumped out a couple of thousand words trying to figure out how I got to this place, especially when I'd started off somewhere very different - but apart from being self-vindicating and awfully precious, it was also nothing that hasn't been seen here before. It was just another version of the chief subtext of what I've been doing for nearly eight years. The position of chief unofficial cultural surveyor of the South Melbourne Hellas exodus years is possibly a fate worse than the exodus itself: every Sunday night or Monday morning during the season writing a report, competing with SMFCMike for the title of de facto voice for the Lost Cause. And while I have a personal aesthetic interest in artistic failure, especially as it relates to failed albums and novels, I'm not so attached to the concept of failure that I can't appreciate success, especially that which happens on the sporting field. But I digress.
Since its achievement, November 16 2005 hasn't just been celebrated for its own sake, but also taken up as justification for everything that has happened since. Of course that makes sense, but it’s a sense that relies a lot on a hard, remorseless kind of logic. Realistically, winning that game didn't guarantee anything that came after it, but it did make it easier for that future (which is now also inevitably part of our past), to happen. Having said that, it would be beyond appalling if I was to say that I would exchange a win on that day for a different sort of future, one that would also have no guaranteed positive outcomes for whatever barrow I'd have ended up pushing. If I did, I'd be no better than those who have retrospectively celebrated the Iran '97 failure because it hastened the end of the NSL and Soccer Australia. It should also be noted however that the quality of one's personal ethics can't and shouldn't really be measured on whether you refuse to stoop as low your opponents have done.
Ten years ago, November 16 felt almost uniformly glorious. Ten years on, it feels like a different event, something which my memory and experience has found to be tainted. The feeling I have then is that there are two November 16s. There is the one that was lived in that moment, and the one that was appropriated, or in far lesser cases, discarded, for political reasons. For most Australian soccer fans, especially those that were in the thick of it that night at Stadium Australia, nothing can sully the memory. In that sense, that night and the 2006 World Cup campaign are perhaps the last moments which remain untainted by Australian soccer’s sectarian tendencies.
As time has gone by, the notion for me that November 16 and the national team could be something that would remain untouched by the factional wrangling has proven to be untrue. This is not to say that either side is right, or that coming to this position was inevitable. Let it be each to his or her own on the matter. For those of you out there on whichever side of the fence you stand, who can still tap into the joy of that night, enjoy it. Aside from one or two stirrers looking for some fireworks - one of them rather unexpected - most of what I've seen on social media has been focused on the joy of the day, and little beyond that. Maybe the people I follow mostly happen to be reasonable folk, and thus I avoided the worst of the new dawn triumphalism; or perhaps I've just avoided the seedier parts of the internet; more likely most people have a bigger capacity to just let things go, at least as far as this event goes. More power to them.