The Sleeping Giant Awakes

 

For generations, we poor benighted followers of Australian football have lived in fear and hidden our faces from the world.

Shunned and ridiculed by the mainstream, our tribe has assembled in secrecy – cowering in our caves – whispering the prophecy that one day The Giant would awaken and sweep the infidels from their lofty positions.

And lo! We true believers would emerge from the caves like a city relieved at the lifting of a siege, walking onto the sunlit uplands like heroes preparing to receive ambrosia.

I was there.

I was there when The Giant awoke…stretched…and rolled over.

* * *

It hasn’t always been easy following Australian football.

In the years BL (Before Lowy), the newspapers were obsessed with games involving oddly shaped balls, and little was ever said about the one true spherical faith – especially on Sydney’s white bread North Shore, where I grew up.

It was rumoured that a bizarre counter culture existed somewhere on the fringes of society, playing a game were the ball bounced truly and goals were hard to get, requiring tremendous skill. But where were they?

To play soccer as a child was regarded as eccentric. To watch it as an adult was regarded as a weird perversion and even prison rock spiders enjoyed higher social status.

But somehow we found each other. Somehow, via a combination of winks, nods and secret handshakes, we true believers assembled to enjoy football and share each other’s pain.

The Socceroos in those days were being knocked out of the World Cup by the footballing powerhouses of New Zealand, Scotland and Israel and the game would lurch from crisis to embarrassment to ridicule despite the bewildering fact that participation rates dwarfed the other codes, combined. But that was the mystery: how did massive amateur participation rates not translate into a strong professional league, national team and media obsession the way it did in the rest of the world?

This mystery was not lost on the other codes. It was said that League, Union and Aussie Rules in particular all trembled at the prospect of the Sleeping Giant – warning each other that if ever “sokkah” got its act together in this country then their days would be numbered. It was rumoured that every time the Socceroos failed to make a World Cup, the Champagne would be broken out at AFL and NRL headquarters. The Giant had been slipped a Rohypnol and the rival codes could flourish for at least another four years.

* * *

I have played football ever since I can remember, and I’ve agonised over the Socceroos that entire time.

I remember being woken by my mother for all three of the games in 1974 (plus the final – Der Bomber prevails). We didn’t do very well but at least we were there, and to a fellow like me (for whom a glass with a drop of water is 1% full) it seemed like we always would be.

But the quadrennia rolled by and we all learned not to hope. Occasionally there’d be a flicker of possibility – like when we drew with Argentina in Sydney and then were beaten by a fluke goal in Buenos Aires. We actually would have won that Sydney game if not for the masterful performance of a mysteriously supercharged Maradona (who was kicked out of the finals as soon as his secret was revealed).

Then there was the tragedy of Melbourne in 97…

I still can’t bear to think of that night.

I was in a room with about 30 of my mates and it was deafening – almost like being there. But we kept missing simple chances in the first half and the tension was only partly relieved by young Harry’s far post effort that put us ahead at half time. Then straight away in the second half we’re two up – completely rampant – and that maniac brings down the net. The Iranians are on record as admitting that they knew they were beaten when that second goal went in, and feared not so much World Cup elimination (that was a given) as total humiliation. But when that pointless prick jumped on the net, and it took so long to repair, they had time to regroup, recover and respond (and their first goal was offside FFS!).

When the final whistle blew, there was silence in my room full of mates. One by one they straggled from the room, unable to watch the aftermath as Johnny Warren famously wept.

Forty-five minutes later there was just me and one other (Albert), still just staring into the desperate void, knowing that Australia, the only team in the history of the tournament to be eliminated without being beaten (at that time) would never make the World Cup finals.

Montevideo, four years later, just proved it.

 

A tale of two Johnnies

Against this backdrop of irrevocable, pre-ordained defeat for the Socceroos, another quadrennium rolled around. I noted with vague interest the establishment of the FFA and the Second Coming of Frank. I was vaguely overjoyed to learn of the appointment of Guus Hiddinck, and vaguely I knew that, on paper, we had a strong team. But we still had to get past the battle hardened Uruguayans – bristling with class, confidence and galvanised by their country’s expectation. And, possibly for the first time, I had no real hope that we might prevail.

More correctly, the hope was there in my heart of hearts, but when it was buried by 32 years of dire disappointment, for the sake of my sanity I had to be grown up and mature about our prospects. We had no chance.

This bleak reality manifested itself in my taking no steps to obtain tickets for the return match in Sydney when it was reasonably possible to get them. A bit later, my mate Pete asked me if I wanted a ticket, if he could get some. “Yeah…why not?” I responded, with as much enthusiasm as I might have shown if he’d asked me to donate a kidney. But despite spending 48 hours on the phone he didn’t come within cooee.

Some days later, still well before the one nil loss in Montevideo, my brother-in-law rang me to tell me he had two spare tickets – for me and my wife. “Thanks Woodsie!” I said, then immediately rang Karen.

“I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is Woodsie’s given me two tickets to the game.”

“That’s fantastic,” she said, “but what’s the bad news?”

“I’m taking Pete.”

* * *

I had to take Pete.

And one of the reasons I love Karen so much is that she understood. Pete had shared my 32 year wait for another trip to the World Cup, and he’d tried to get me a ticket for god’s sake! The least I could do in return was snub my wife for him.

As we took our seats at the Olympic Stadium my choice was further vindicated.

“We booked our tickets for Germany today.”

“You what?”

Pete had already paid for return tickets to Germany for his entire family – with Uruguay leading one nil after their home match.

I just shook my head in amazement at his confidence. Had he learned nothing after 32 years?

* * *

No-one who was there will ever forget. And no-one will ever be able to explain what it was like to those who were not.

Half an hour before kick off, the atmosphere was electric – unbelievable. It was like the party to end all parties had started prematurely – going off and gambling everything on there being something to celebrate before the end. And there was something else: a tangible, supernatural presence. The spirit of Johnny Warren loomed large over the stadium like a countervailing force to neutralise the natural chutzpah of the South American light heavyweights.

By the time the teams had marched out onto the pitch the 83,000 in the stands had reached a level of deafening angst that was not to subside the entire evening. When the Uruguayan national anthem played, we didn’t hear a note. The entire crowd were booing so loudly and passionately, it was genuinely terrifying. I could see the nervousness of the enemy on the big screen as 83,011 Australians howled, and I turned to Pete in some embarrassment.

“I don’t know how I feel about this,” I said, “…we don’t usually do this.”

The boos and hatred seemed to swell even stronger, and I said: “Mind you…what we usually do is lose.”

I daresay we all would have felt somewhat better about the booing had we known that the Uruguayans had been insulting, kicking and spitting at the Australians in the tunnel before coming out.

The game began in a series of furious anticlimaxes as the Uruguayans immediately commenced time-wasting tactics. Even the coach, Jorge (Prostitute Food) Forsatti was wasting time – hanging onto the ball to prevent a throw-in in the very first minutes! But once the game settled down, it was the Australians dominating most of the possession with the enemy happy to counter-attack mainly through the lightning Recoba. In fact, he really should have scored after about 20 minutes, despite the fact that he should have been pulled up for a high foot on Lucas Neill when he nicked the ball off Lucas’s cheek with his studs. Mark that one down to Johnny W, slamming his fist down on the chessboard of the gods.

Then came the key moment of normal time. Harry hadn’t started, but replaced Tony Popovic after 30 minutes as Guus changed his shape and went on the attack. Almost immediately, Harry worked a brilliant move down the left with Timmy Cahill and Mark Viduka, ran onto the return ball and fooled everyone by pretending a pathetic air swing which was, in fact, a sublime pass to Bresciano who drilled it over Carini’s head into the roof of the net.

The joy.

The sheer, primal howl of triumphant ecstasy.

We were now even on aggregate and if anything, the noise and angst levels rose. Before we’d had nothing to lose but now we did, and the white-knuckled horde clenched its teeth and buttocks and just clung to each other, emitting this weird, deafening drone like a billion terrified bees.

As the players went off for half time we sat numbly, unable to think or speak with any coherence. We made inarticulate noises – communicating in some kind of visceral language that was mainly about despair and injustice and four more years of what-might-have-been. We feared another Melbourne 97.

All week I’d been predicting one nil and penalties (despite my lack of belief and hope), and if I was right, it would mean another impossibly narrow squeak. To lose again, in those circumstances – I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to find the energy or interest to take another breath. It simply wouldn’t be worth it.

The players returned and the second half commenced. The crowd immediately returned to its previous 5000 decibels and 45 minutes passed in a blur of adrenaline, noise and terror. Neither team had any clear cut chances, as far as I recall, but I do remember thinking we’d finished the stronger, which is why I was furious when the ground announcer advised that in extra time away goals still counted double in the event of a draw.

“Oh that’s just wrong!” I moaned to Pete. “They’ve had their chance for double value and done nothing with it. Now they’re used to the conditions it should be off scratch.”

“Knowing FIFA,” replied Pete, “away goals will count double in the penalty shootout.”

The countdown to penalties commenced as we dominated extra time, while still allowing Uruguay occasional chances. A free header to Morales from a corner had us clutching our heads in horror! He was six yards out! Why was he left (and how did he miss)?

The players changed ends for the final fifteen minutes and it was just agony. The longer it went, the more likely it seemed that Uruguay would score, leaving us with the impossible task of getting two in whatever seconds were left.

But finally it was over. The crowd roared its appreciation and love and almost magically, the fear was gone. It’s like Johnny W was standing behind every one of us, massaging our shoulders and whispering: “I told you so.”

Suddenly we were confident and breathing easy – standing on our seats – desperate to make a difference somehow. The players seemed confident, and the Uruguayans were strangers in a strange and hostile land.

The players retired to the centre circle and Harry strode forward to take the first – slotted beautifully – one nil.

Then Rodriguez approached timidly for Uruguay. Schwarzer was steady as a stone, staring him down, guessed right and dived left and the roar that filled the stadium made the previous 120 minutes sound like a basket of kittens. Advantage Oz.

Neill and Vidmar, Varela and Estoyanoff, all functus officio – three, two.

Mark Viduka, captain courageous, stepped up to keep our noses in front. All we had to do was score two more penalties and we were going to Germany. And Viduka was the best striker we’d ever had, wasn’t he? No problem.

You just knew he was gonna miss. He completely tangled his run up, dragged it gently wide, and the horrible doubts were back. Or should have been.

For some reason probably associated with my natural optimism in defiance of any odds (a glass with a drop is 1% full after all) I turned to Pete as the crowd groaned its dismay and said: “Schwarzer’ll save this.”

Pete said nothing. He knew I was full of shit, but to acknowledge it might somehow break the magic spell I’d just cast.

Zalayeta stepped up to equalise for Uruguay and Schwarzer guessed right again.

Wow.

The inexpressible relief hot on the heels of Viduka’s miss. All of us were turning excitedly to each other and shouting, as Johnny Aloisi approached the spot: “If he scores we’re going to Germany!”

Johnny stood there, in the most tense and crippling of silences in the history of human endeavour. Thirty-two years of heartache on his shoulders. His eyes flicked towards the referee to confirm that all was in readiness, then he glided towards the ball and drove it past Carini’s desperate fingers.

We’ve all seen it a thousand times as Johnny rips his shirt off and goes careering around the stadium, pursued by his ecstatic team mates and surrounded by wildly celebrating Australians pouring their love like petrol onto the flames of joy.

In the stands we were hugging strangers and kissing anyone. Even as I write this now, nearly ten years later, there’s a lump in my throat and my eyes are getting misty at the memory. There’ll never again be a feeling like that – the relief – the untold, inexpressible exultation after 32 years of torment. We stayed standing on our seats hugging, cheering and singing till we were hoarse and beyond, all of us contributing to The Giant’s waking roar. As the players did a long, slow victory lap they played Land Down Under about eight times back to back and we just loved it – our hearts filled with a profound emotion that went beyond patriotism, jingoism or any other ism.

It was an awesome, magical, life-changing experience beyond the passion of saints. And you really had to be there.

We were going to Germany!

The Giant had woken.

 

[This blog was originally published on the Vulgar Press website in 2009, then revised and republished on the FourFourTwo site in 2012.]

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent Ad. Really excellent! Russ


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