A column about football lag

For the past few weeks, I’ve been suffering from the debilitating symptoms of jet lag. I’ve been waking in the middle of the night, sitting in front of the TV. Yesterday morning, I woke up at 4.45am and couldn’t get back to sleep. And I feel like a wreck during the day – I can’t concentrate and keep drifting off to sleep at highly embarrassing moments. But this is not the result of glamorous intercontinental travel. Instead, I’m suffering from an entirely voluntary condition: football lag.

This is caused by being so obsessed with watching a live soccer match on the other side of the world that you subject your body to acute sleep deprivation. Your work, your family, even your ability to drive without swerving sideways as your eyelids involuntarily close are sacrificed in the hope of sharing in the moment of your team snatching glory.

I’ve been following the London team Arsenal as they reached the final of the European Champions League, which they narrowly, devastatingly lost to Barcelona yesterday morning. And I can tell you that the pain of losing the world’s best club competition to an offside goal is magnified substantially by it happening at 6.30am.

I love Arsenal because I spent two years in a rough, inner-city London school as a boy, and discovered that I got beaten up less if you supported the local team. (Note, I say ‘less’.) Whereas the boys who barracked for nearby Tottenham were bashed up by Arsenal’s hooligans-in-training after every local derby, I was bashed only when Australia beat England in the cricket World Cup final, which was almost worth it.

They were so obsessed that the greeting in the playground on my first day was not such trivial details as my name or where I’d come from. It was “Oi! What football team do you support?” And let’s just say they were underwhelmed to learn it was “North Sydney Bears.”

I also went down to a club in Bondi last week, to share in a West Ham-supporting friend’s heartbreaking FA Cup Final loss against Liverpool. It finished up at 2.45am, and there were only two screens, so all I saw of the game were tubby Cockney backpackers in unflattering claret jerseys, incongruously singing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’. ‘I’m Forever Blowing Penalty Shootouts’ would have been more appropriate.

But despite the pain, we wouldn’t have missed it for the world, because watching football is addictive. No other sport contains so much tension punctuated by moments of sheer adrenalin. A team can almost always equalise in soccer, so you’re on tenterhooks until the very end – unlike AFL and rugby matches, which regularly result in blowouts.

I won’t be struggling with my addiction alone for long, though. Australia’s qualification for the World Cup for the first time since live satellite broadcasts means that the nation is about to know the unique pain of waking at 4am for a stupid sporting event. Even John Howard will probably wake up for it, albeit wearing his Wallaby pyjamas. Your stomach lurches, you get a headache, and sometimes you feel dizzy. But it’s always worth it, even when you lose.

We will be a nation of sleepwalkers next month, dozing off at our desks and smashing our cars into inanimate objects. But absolutely everyone will be talking about it constantly, and crowding into pubs at 4am to watch the Socceroos getting thrashed by the mighty Brazilians. As a nation of sport lovers, we’re in for an enormous amount of body-clock agony. But it will be an unforgettable experience, even though it involves cheering Mark Viduka.

So set your alarm clocks, Australia. We’ve got a World Cup to watch. And a sickie to chuck the next day.

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