The email from Football Victoria came in at about 5:21 on Friday evening. It said that FV just wanted to clarify that while venues were closed to crowds for the resumption of games in NPL Victoria, media would be allowed in, though it would be best to check with the host club first. Well, ordinarily I would've jumped at the opportunity to head to a South game, but alas! I had made other plans! By which I mean, it didn't seem right to leave loved ones in the comparative (and not really that inconvenient) lurch at such short notice.
Also, given the lack of due notice that accredited media would be allowed in, there was just no real time to make an official application of my intention to attend. I mean, there kinda was, especially if I wanted to back channel things with my South insider people, but wouldn't that just reek of "don't you know who I am" antics, and I'm clearly not about that. Usually.
So instead I decided to do (more or less) what many of you would have done on the night, and watched this game from the comfort of a loungeroom in suburbia (in my case, on YouTube on my Xbox One); after watching Argiro Barbarigou with my mum, of course.
Fair to say, and I know it's obvious and cliched, but when it comes to watching South Melbourne Hellas, that compared to being there in person, streaming just ain't it. The quality of the camerawork is good, the commentators for our game were good, and the production values were good (sans the persistent lack of replays). But it's not soccer as I think it should be.
And that's not to say that being there on Friday night would have been some transcendent experience, because it wouldn't have been. Closed door games suck whether you're there or not. I know, I've been to one, and while it's preferable to not being there, it's still a less than ideal experience. What I'm trying to say is, that under normal circumstances, you'd prefer to be at a game - even one with a horrendously low attendance - as long people have the choice of attending or not attending.
Competitive, organised football at a level where spectators are part of the equation, is meant to be a social and civic affair. Furthermore, it doesn't matter if anyone shows up or not (well it does, but humour me for a moment for the sake of the argument I'm going to try and make), and whether those that do show up show anything like being interested or amused or entertained by the spectacle. Being part of a collective experience that's entirely based on intermittent digital interactions with people during spectacle doesn't quite do it for me.
Watching a stream together, in a shared space, also isn't ideal, but it can have its charms. And it's not like I don't watch my fair share of Collingwood matches on television, and tweet about them. But that's somehow also quite different from the local soccer experience. Collingwood, and the AFL, are very, very big in this culture. You can be classed as a supporter and participant in the culture, even if your actual involvement or engagement is very small.
Sure there's a difference between the hardcore who buy reserved seat memberships and those who mainly read about their teams in the paper or make idle chat about the footy in the office; but there's enough depth to the supporter culture in footy to make a range of supporter experiences and approaches appear at least notionally valid; you can go to games regularly or not go at all, and still be part of something much larger than yourself.
Soccer - likely throughout Australia, but more specifically at our level, and even more specifically South's situation - does not have that luxury of supporter depth and cultural embeddedness; where the culture of competitive, organised, spectator oriented soccer is so embedded that the game can make do with "enough" people turning up to make up for all the people who claim to take an interest but then don't actually go to that many games of senior soccer.
It's not just that you need people at games to pay for player wages and other costs. You need people at games to demonstrate that there's a purpose to this club that transcends creating content for media conglomerates and the gambling industry; otherwise you may as well just either shut the whole thing down, or hand over control of senior soccer to a betting company.
Every game with a low attendance makes people wonder if the whole South Melbourne Hellas thing is a going concern, not just or even primarily economically, but culturally. Every game like this, with no attendance except a very strict limit on barebones staff and designated drivers and/or guardians, chips away at the feeling of being connected to something bigger than ourselves, even if it is not very big. Every closed door game also just kicks the question of what the future holds for this club, in a shared community sense, a little bit further down road.
During the game we played maybe 15 minutes of good football, and apart from that, looked generally clueless as to how to score. It looked cold. It rained. The players that I have no faith in screwed up their moments, and the players that I had some faith in didn't do much better. The coaching staff keep messing around with line-ups and positioning. And the team is being found, or so it seems, for the board not having signed a striker, nor for finding a way to encourage those responsible for team selection and organisation to pick a youth team striker to have a go.
And while we could have lost by more than we did, it felt fitting to lose to a solitary goal which will also probably be the goal of the season. That we spent the last half hour in utter cluelessness trying to figure out how to score a goal from open play was the cherry on top. All of this would have been experienced with much more anguish and anger and self-loathing if we could have watched it together at Lakeside. And again, I understand why we couldn't, but that last half hour for me wasn't even shared online.
At about the 58 minute mark, I had to drive up to Sunshine Marketplace to pick up my youngest brother from his job. So I paused the YouTube stream, and drove the five minutes to the shopping centre. I had the footy on the radio. I waited two minutes for my brother to come out of the shops, then drove back home. By the time I got back onto the couch and resumed the stream, I was 17 minutes behind the present.
I avoided the socials until the match concluded in my own reality's real time, and I avoided fast forwarding through the action... mostly. I say mostly, because when it became clear that Port were going to slow down every stoppage in play to the nth degree, I was able to move the cursor ahead by a few seconds each time. Eventually I made up about four minutes of differential; it could've been more had I started doing that earlier.
But even being able to have that choice to do that, destroyed the feeling of being part of something other than watching something to kill time on a Friday night. When you're at the game, you can't fast forward or pause. You can make nonsense comments like "gee that half just flew by" or "this half has been going on forever", and they'll be perfectly valid statements of your perception of the temporal experience, even if they're completely wrong. Devoid of the shared experience, the whole thing loses much of its accumulated meaning. Without the journey to and from the game, there is a lack of a framing device. Without other voices, without the chorus of the crowd, it's just you and an increasingly oblique for why you care about this thing.
At home, and mostly alone, time elapsed during a soccer match becomes nothing. Fast forward it. Pause it. Turn it off. Go to bed.
Eastern Lions on Wednesday night, in the rescheduled FFA Cup fixture. Once again, due to covid restrictions, you won't be able go! What you will be able to do, is tune in to the game via South's Facebook page. No idea yet if the game will be streamed through a streaming service that I prefer, like YouTube.
A quick word on the senior women
After that advance notice of South dismantling their opposition, I didn't stream any of it, not out of slackness or spite or carelessness, but because the whole thing seemed macabre. As the season rolls on, South's senior women add more and more top-shelf talent, and sides like Bayside end up being treated like Southern United.
Ten-nil it finished. South is completely entitled to crush any opposition it faces, and it would kind of be remiss of it not to flex all its muscles when it can. But, also, poor Bayside. What good does a result like this do for them, and for player development in local women's soccer? It probably does as much good for them as it does for Southern United, who no longer have senior representation.
Not sure what good it does for the development of the South players either. But I suppose they'll be happy to take the three points and move on to the next game.
Here's hoping that we can get back to games by the weekend. I miss watching games in person, and I even miss some of you.