I can’t remember ever watching a more enjoyable sporting event than last Wednesday’s win by the Socceroos. I think the main reason it was so very, very good was because we weren’t expecting to win. A sporting victory is always sweeter when it isn’t expected. That’s why the Premiership wins by the Swans and Tigers were so intensely satisfying, as both clubs put aside decades of disappointment to finally taste success. I’m still waiting for the AFL to uncover some evidence, or hear some appeal, that’ll mean the Swans aren’t actually premiers – it’s almost surreal.
Too often in Australian sport, we expect excellence, as our cricketers found in the Ashes series. After a decade of consistently delivering wins, we’ve become addicted to it, and can no longer take pleasure in a series like the current bloodbath against the West Indies. And then there’s the Rugby League World Cup, which I can’t understand why they even bother holding.
But has there ever been a team of underdogs like the Socceroos? For 32 years they’ve snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Even after dominating Uruguay for most of the match, no-one in the pub I was in seemed to genuinely believe they could do it. And when the match went to penalties, we felt another chapter in the annals of last-minute disappointment was being written in front of our eyes. It was the first time in the history of the game that a World Cup place was decided by penalties, and even the most optimistic fan would have tipped the Socceroos to be the first-ever recipients of that most painful of experiences.
And that’s why when John Aloisi netted the penalty that took us to Germany, the joy was overwhelming, almost outrageous. It didn’t seem possible that after years of watching from afar, with our faces pressed up to the glass of the world’s biggest sporting event, most Australians would finally be spared the ignominy of having to follow England.
The pub I was in went crazy, with shocked and delighted patrons embracing strangers and dancing on the table. My friends and I headed down to George St in the hope the fans were going wild. They didn’t disappoint, with hundreds of cars honking horns until late, and happily tipsy fans with curly yellow wigs dancing and cheering in front of traffic. It was awesome.
The scenes reminded me of a magical night in 2002, when my brother and I had braved the basement bar of Cheers to watch the quarter-final between South Korea and Spain. We were surrounded by Koreans in t-shirts saying ‘Be the Reds’, and when the Cup co-hosts somehow sneaked a win on penalties, the bar absolutely exploded onto George St in delight. Korean supporters streamed into the area from everywhere. They stopped traffic, including one poor bus that was marooned in a sea of red shirts for an hour. Internet café proprietors hung speakers out the window to play the team song, and a few brave fans actually started dancing on the roof of the bus. The scene got so out of hand that when the police arrived to try and maintain order, one of the horses bolted, throwing its rider and galloping off towards the QVB.
The most amazing thing about that night, though, was that it took place literally twenty metres from the Spanish Club on Liverpool St. As the heartbroken fans walked out onto the street, many shook hands with and hugged the Koreans. It was a beautiful thing to watch, and it made me very proud that this must be just about the only place in the world where football supporters would embrace, rather than stab on another
And what did South Korea have in common with the Socceroos, apart from a nail-biting win on penalties against a traditional power? Their coach was Guus Hiddink. With a man of his experience encouraging them on, the team dared to believe, and they succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Come next July, that could just possibly be us. And if our master coach can somehow take us to the semi-finals of the world’s greatest sporting event, we’ll all be dancing on top of buses.