Thursday, 13 February 2020

Death and its malcontents

I'm tired of the old shit 
Let the new shit begin
Eels - Old Shit/New Shit
I had begun writing up a post about last week's final friendly, but it was maudlin and stiff to the point of self-parody. Normally that would only bother me a little bit, but there are times when I feel like I've pursued that angle as far as it will go, and that I need to lay off it lest the blog becomes emotionally monotone - especially when there's a whole season to go, where we can all be as pantomime miserable as we like.

So before re-writing the sections I'd already written, I thought I'd write the thing that I should have been writing about in the first place, that being the reason for my break.

Three weeks ago, my father died.

He had been battling pancreatic cancer for the better part of a year, and for most of that time was holding up relatively well; but as was explained to me by the oncologists in what turned out to be the final couple of weeks of his life, at some point the body can no longer fight the fight. The blog's hiatus came on the day before his death, though at the time I only knew that dad's time on this earth was limited, and not necessarily that his end was imminent. So it goes.

I could write about my father's life in great detail, but my telling of it would be incomplete, and besides which, this is not really the place for it. Suffice to say, he was born and raised in difficult circumstances, worked a series of back-breaking jobs throughout his life, and spent most of his life - 49 out of 72 years - in a country he never was able to quite get his head around. It's a story a good chunk of my readership will be all too familiar with.

But there was joy, too, and one of the things that brought my father joy was soccer. His village in Greece, now close to collapse from population decline, was large enough then to have its own soccer team, and in one way or another dad's interest in the game remained for the rest of his life.

Arriving in Australia in 1971, the football scene he saw here was past its 1960s state league peak, but it was still healthy enough for there to be good players and good entertainment. Dad picked Alexander as his club not because he was from the north of Greece - though that became more important later on - but because when he first arrived in Melbourne he lived in the inner-north, in Collingwood. It was about as good a time to get on the Alexander bandwagon, as for the next decade or so they would be at their peak. Later the combination of distance (it's a fair hike from Altona North to Olympic Village), work and family commitments (my brothers have no interest in sport), and off-field politics (Macedonia issue, NSL and Soccer Australia bull-crap, internal club stuff) which gradually wore down not just the Bergers as a force, but also my dad's diminishing optimism about the game's prospects.

Thus he gradually drifted away from the local game; never completely losing interest, but never doing much to reverse that trend. When I came back to South in 2006, dad came with me for a few games, but eventually for all sorts of reasons - not least because I'd managed to attach myself to Clarendon Corner and the smfcboard bunch - his attendance at the soccer became minimal. He would still keep up to date via the Greek papers and radio, but most of his interest in soccer regressed to what was available on free-to-air TV. For a while there in the early-to-mid 2000s, I was headed much the same way, but turned that around in a story I've related in a number of places already.

My love of the game exists both because of, and in spite of, my father's relationship to the game. It exists because of his love for the game, because the game as it was for a good chunk of his first twenty years in Australia, contained a language he understood both in terms of what was happening on the field as well as off it. It's not that he didn't like Aussie Rules, but he had no cultural connection to that game. I only went to one footy match before I was 18, and that wasn't with my dad. When we went together to see a sporting match, it was inevitably a soccer match.

So we went to soccer matches. At Paisley Park initially, where we saw Altona East win the Hellenic Cup on its home turf. Then to Middle Park and Olympic Village and Olympic Park, and even after the Bergers were kicked out of the NSL, he would take me to South games at Lakeside. Dad had the habits a lot of his generation had. Park miles away from the ground and risk a parking ticket instead of paying for parking; never pay for a grandstand seat; always time your run to get to the ground five minutes from kickoff, and always start getting ready to leave five minutes before the end of a game, regardless of the score. So many of these things infuriated me, and still do, but it's just the way he was, and none of my nagging was going to change things.

Besides which, I had found my own way to annoy him. I became a South fan instead of a Berger because I saw the 1991 NSL grand final on TV, and because the team did well after that, too, and because there were enough nearby relatives at the time who were also Hellas fans to keep me attached to that. The novelist Christos Tsiolkas relates the story of how the first time he disappointed his father was when he chose Aussie Rules over soccer, and I guess my picking Hellas over Alexander was something dad could never quite get over.

Dad kept that feeling buried pretty well though, still taking me to South games when he could, and using the line (that was only a half a lie) that watching a good game of soccer, and watching talented players, was more important to him than his team winning. He'd use the examples of someone like Ulysses Kokkinos, or Branko Buljevic, or Dusan Bajevic when he came out here with AEK. The Bajevic example he loved to roll out a lot - on that day the Olympic Park pitch was a mud bath, and yet Bajevic came off the field without having gotten dirty at all. Why? Because Bajevic refused to make an idiot of himself and chase balls when people should have been playing the ball to his feet.

But when I say it was only a half a lie that dad preferred entertainment and quality over the glory of victory, it was because deep down my dad really was a Berger tragic. In 2008, the Bergers' 50th anniversary season - and probably the last proper Bergers game my dad went to that I can remember - the home team came from behind and beat South 2-1. As their second goal went in, he smiled in a way that I hadn't seen him ever do, and he even did a little fist-pump. I didn't even know that he had a fist-pump in his gesticulation repertoire. The ride home in the station wagon from the Village to Altona North was almost unbearable for the smugness in that Kingswood, the years of being humiliated by South during the 1990s melting away for him during the trip back.

But our trajectories as followers of local soccer nevertheless drifted further and further apart. He had a passive aggressive tendency, too, with my attendance, especially because I would take public transport to most grounds. He both wanted and was happy for me to to go all sorts of soccer games; but there were also times when he was befuddled by the notion of my taking a lengthy public transport journey, which would see me return from the other side of town in the early hours of the morning. "Why do you need to go, when there'll be other people there? Does the team specifically need you there?"

And like a lot of the older generation, if it was raining, so much the worse! Why would someone deliberately go out and get wet for no good reason? And don't get me started on what he thought about anyone who would be stupid enough to volunteer at a club, and especially anyone who trusted anyone on a committee, ever. At some level, what my dad would've considered as my crazy and now decade-plus renewed dedication to South Melbourne Hellas and soccer - in terms of attending, writing, and thinking - is my attempt to make up for lost time, and to avoid becoming so jaded that I stop caring about something that matters to me so much. I'm trying to make up for all those games I didn't get to see during the NSL years, for all the soccer friends I didn't have in the 1990s and early 2000s, and for the culture I was not as connected to as I wish that I was.

It's also my attempt to not fall into the trap of self-defeating cynicism that my father fell into. My friends and readers will know that I love to complain, that I instinctively first see how things could go wrong instead of how things could get better, and that I am prone to being openly caustic; but I've seen the alternative, and I'd rather be attached to the glorious mess of Australian soccer than be apart from it. In other words, unlike my dad and so many of his generation - and later generations - I'd rather be mumbling to others at a ground that things will never get better, rather than sitting at home mumbling to myself that things will never change.

But we still talked about all the off-field and on-field happenings, and we would still watch most of the major world tournaments at our disposal. I remember him taping Greece's first World Cup game in 1994 against Argentina, and then when I woke up and asked about it, him telling me it was not worth watching because we'd been smashed. I remember sitting in my uncle and aunt's lounge-room in 1997, where in the only time I ever believed he had any clairvoyant ability - because he'd make these kinds of predictions often, whether one way or the other - he picked Iran's coming back from 2-0 down.

We were both stoked when Australia finally qualified for the World Cup, and like everyone else we watched the Socceroos with awe in Germany, and with less awe in later World Cups. But the best time was probably the 2014 World Cup, where we stayed up late and woke up early and I watched far more of a World Cup than I ever had before, and my dad became a sort of ancillary character in my sleep-deprived narration of events, waking me up for games, and supplying me with tea and biscuits.

The final confluence of our soccer interests was the most unlikely set of circumstances I can think of. Throughout my extended career as a university student - a botched stint at Melbourne University in 2002 and 2003, and a much more successful stint from 2007-2018 - the things I was studying almost never came up in discussion. When I was writing my doctoral thesis on Australian soccer literature, for the first three or so years of that he must've just assumed that I was doing "something", but who knows what. But one day he asked what it was that I writing on, and after I'd explained it his face lit up and he started talking about his own poetry.

Now I knew that he had once fancied himself a poet, and that he had been published in Neos Kosmos in the early 1990s, writing poetry on a variety of subjects - such as the commercialism of the modern Olympics, and the Macedonia issue - but the key here was that he remembered that he'd written a soccer poem, an ode to Heidelberg United Alexander while they were having a difficult season. Not only that, but it had been published in Neos Kosmos in an abridged form, and a Bergers committee member had seen it and was so moved by it that my dad was offered a double pass to their next home game.

But that wasn't the whole of it - dad had also written a poem on what he saw as the unjust sacking of Jim Pyrgolios as Hellas coach and Pyrgolios' replacement by Frank Arok; as well as a lengthy poem on Altona East PAOK's Hellenic Cup win in 1992, which was printed and placed on the window of the wooden portable which was then PAOK's social club space. The Pyrgolios poem and the PAOK one survived in draft form, but the Bergers one I was never able to trace down a complete version of, except for a couple of stanzas in a draft. Maybe when Neos Kosmos completes its digitisation I can finally find the rest of the poem.

Now to be honest, the quality of dad's poetry was firmly in the category of doggerel; but since one of the points of my research was its focus on what existed in terms of Australian soccer literature, rather than the quality of what existed, I was stoked to learn about his soccer poems, and that some of them had survived. I transcribed the remnant drafts, transliterated them, added them as an appendix in my thesis, and cited the poems as works and my father as a writer in the main body of my thesis. I used my dad and his work specifically as an example of how hard it was to find examples of Australian soccer literature by non-English language writers, but also how important it was when one did find examples of them.

Passing my doctoral thesis was an ordeal - I had wildly disparate examiner's reports - so the day that I got notice that the third examiner had passed me with minor corrections, I was more relieved than elated. But the day I graduated was a joyous moment, because I got to share that with my dad, having written a work which had him in it. Like many of the people who followed soccer in this country, my dad's experiences, memories and thoughts of the game will soon be lost. It's in Australian soccer's DNA that we keep forgetting the past, and keep attempting to re-build Troy on top of the rubble and ashes of the cities which  came before. And the nature of most theses is that once they are finished, they will soon fade into irrelevance or insignificance - but knowing that I was able to preserve my father's work and part of his life in some format was reward enough for the effort.

As for last week's friendly...
Returning for my first bit of South Melbourne action for the 2020 campaign - or more correctly, preparation for the 2020 campaign - I felt that not much had changed in the months since I last watched a South game. The greeting at the door before I pick up membership pack was the same.  There were the same old faces sitting in the social club, and later watching the game, in this case a friendly against NPL2 side Northcote. Not everyone was there - more will be back this week - but there were no unfamiliar attendees except for the subbuteo faction on the futsal court, and even they've been there before.

If there were changes to be noticed, they were subtle ones. The complimentary scarf is longer than usual. The faces behind the bar are a little different, but they're still pouring spirits somewhere between a shot and a free-pour. The burger is much the same, including the wait time. At one point, social club manager Vic had Clutch(!) on the social club's stereo system. Outside, the sun-and-rain-bleached blue of the athletics track has been touched up to be of a more robust royal blue hue, while the city skyline to the north was clouded in smoke.

But the meaningless of the hit-out, bushfire relief aspect notwithstanding, was much the same. Whether pre-season form is magnificent or disastrous, there is no oracle which can reliably predict what it will mean for the season proper. But I asked those who had been to more pre-season games than I had this year to offer their assessment of what they've seen anyway, even if I knew that the answers would be non-committal. The most optimistic refrain was that it seemed that at least the team no longer hated each other and themselves which, if true, would be a step up from last season and the season before that.

Then again, give it five minutes and anything could happen. It's a very long season and a very large squad, and all the woodfired pizzas in Shepparton might not be able to prevent internal schisms should things go wrong.

On the field, I don't think it was a full-strength line-up for us. Peter Skapetis was out there, and initially at least he ran harder than I'd seen him do at any point for us last year. Chris Irwin played further up the field, as a pure winger, than he usually did during his previous stint with us, where he was much more likely to be used to as a wing-back. Harrison Sawyer is big, runs hard, and has spindly legs that I predict he will repeatedly trip over, Melvin Beckett looked exactly the same as last season, a lot of sizzle and not much steak. Marcus Schroen was not out there, so someone else was taking corners, free kicks, and penalties.

The tempo was high throughout the friendly, but you know what I think about high tempo at this level - that it's the Max Power Paradigm - not the right way or the wrong way, but rather the wrong way just faster. Both sides created a ton of chances in part because of this high tempo, which has freaked out the kinds of people who treat pre-season friendlt games against lower tier opposition in which we don't run them into the ground (with what I assume is nowhere quite near our likely starting eleven) as an ominous portent of doom for the coming season. Of course, had we belted our NPL2 opposition, the calls may have been that it was not a real hit-out against a comparable opponent. I say let's just wait for the Bergers to bury us on Friday night before we get legitimately panicky. 

Aside from what has been happening on the field, it has been as low-key a lead-up to a Victorian top-tier season that I can remember, apart from the bizarre Avondale points deduction which happened very late. There is no buzz. It's not just us, either - pretty much the whole league, and the federation, too, has approached 2020 as if there is nothing to get excited about, nothing to look forward to. Of course it doesn't help matters that most teams in this competition have no fans to get excited about anything, but even those clubs with what might be classed as "actual supporters" have mostly been quiet.

So is this it? Is this the end, the point where everyone finally, genuinely acknowledges the futility of state league football? One can only hope, though we'll have probably have to wait until after the game against the Bergers to be sure.

It's official
I am glad to say that I am once again officially accredited by Football Victoria to provide the public with South Melbourne Hellas nonsense. Also other nonsense, too, I assume, but I'll have to check the accreditation agreement.


  1. Αιωνία του η μνήμη.
    This post is the best one you have ever written.

  2. Sorry to hear of your loss. Ζωή σε σας και να τον θυμάστε. :(

  3. Great piece, Paul. Sincere condolences. Am so happy you've been able to write something so touching. Is our privilege to read it.

  4. As the son of a migrant who introduced me to our game I found this a wonderful read. Sincere condolences for your loss Paul


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