I’ve often talked to friends and family about the moments in my life when I experienced true bliss, when happiness was not just a transitory feeling but a pure state of being. Unlike many I’ve not couched such experiences in the traditional contexts of births and marriages, but instead focused on sport. Perhaps that demonstrates a certain shallowness or a paucity of exposure to meaningful life matters, however they are my experiences and I will always treasure them.
The first was back in the early hours of September 24th, 1993. Before there was an A-League, in the days when football was more a dormant like than an all-consuming love, I was engrossed in the Olympics. Before I knew of the legendary 1974 Socceroos I had been bitten by the bug of the five ringed circus thanks to watching Munich 72 on a black and white television in a caravan in East Maitland. So, when Sydney’s bid for the 2000 Olympics came to the all important juncture, aiming to get the nod by the IOC over Beijing, Manchester and other bidding cities, well it was one of the moments in my life. At the ungodly hour local time that the late and not much lamented Juan Antonio Samaranch said “….And the winner is Sydney, Australia”, well there and then I had the first defining moment of ecstacy in my life thanks to sport.
Come forward over 12 years and it was Germany 2006 qualification time for the Socceroos. Another November date with destiny, having gone through the heart ache of watching the national side fail at every attempt to repeat the wondrous achievements of Rale Rasic’s 1974 heroes, it was a long and tortuous experience having to watch the Socceroos triumph over the Uruguyans. Thirty-two years of sadness, of frustration, of disappointment melted away under the floodlight glare of legends like Schwarzer, Bresciano, Kewell, Viduka, Alosi and that man Tony Popovic, and once more I was taken to another plane of happiness. Giddy with the penalty shoot-out win and a few good measures of kartoffelschnapps all I could do was euphorically celebrate the erasing of all those disappointing years, all those bad memories, all those frustrated Socceroo campaigns. I had another moment in my life that was filtered through sport and epic success to memorize.
So last morning, as my beloved Western Sydney Wanderers battled through possibly the sternest challenge ever faced by any club of any code in this country to win not just a famous victory, but one with global implications…well let me say that I am on a high equal to the intoxicating joy as I experienced back in 1993 and 2005, if not higher.
I had been debating whether to go to the live site in Parramatta’s Centenary Square, as I’m not as young as I once was and the stress of what was going to be an all-nighter was something better dealt with in my old university days 30 years ago. Throw in the hassle of heading into Parramatta, the possibility of a loss souring the mood post-match (as was experienced after the 2012/13 grand final), and being a lazy old prick, well my mind was not made up until my beloved said the right words; “You’ll regret it if you don’t go”. A few additional incentives from friends online who were going to be at the first (and arguably best) home of the RBB (i.e. The Woolpack Hotel), I decided to let go of my middle aged doubts and get on board the live site experience.
The hours leading into the match were profitably spent drinking a few ales, chatting with some of my aforementioned keyboard comrades at the Woolie, contemplating the imposing date with destiny for the Wanderers over in Saudi, and trying not to feel sick in the stomach with nerves. If there is one thing that really helps with the trials of being a Wanderers fan it’s the brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow fans. I know this might sound a bit hyperbolic, a bit over the top, however I can honestly say I’ve not felt a greater and more enjoyable sense of camaraderie, dare I say family, than with those who share my passion for the Western Sydney Wanderers, since at least my time as an undergraduate up at UNE. The range of ages, of ethnicity, of home roots, of opinions matters not a jot when we get together. Over a few cleansing ales or steins we can relate without all the BS our non-Wanderers lives could bring to bear on our communication. Young or old, male or female, bogan Anglo or effnick wog I am part of this amazing community of western Sydney people, all sharing the love of the Wanderers, and it is a wonderful experience made even more potent at 3.30am before an AFC Champions’ League final.
With a few of my comrades as company it was a short walk over to Centenary square, and within minutes it was a sea of fellow Wanderers faithful in red and black, or perhaps a sprinkling of white and red away strips. The mood was one of nervous energy, coupled with that unmistakable air of people trying to either stay awake or wake up. It wasn’t the most well organised or comfortable of set-ups, and the three mobile big screen displays had their issues. However as my beloved said, I would have regretted not being there to share the whole experience. Throw in the presence of members of the RBB and La Banda, a bracing cup of coffee and a collapsible camp chair I was about as ready as I could be for the big game.
Now when it came to the match itself, first off I note with approval that Tony Popovic followed his own mind and ignored my manifesto on how to beat Al Hilal. It was a little surprising to see Kwabena Appiah run on as the RAM and Shannon Cole take over from Daniel Mullen as RB, however as is the mantra of all who follow the Wanderers, in Popa we/I trust. The early moments of the game were positive for the away team, and it looked like perhaps the match would be more even than that played last week at Wanderland. Then the tempo changed, and it was as if Al Hilal were always on the attack and the Wanderers hunkered down for an assault of biblical magnitude. Time and time again the home forwards surged forwards, putting the back five of Cole, Hamill, Topor-Stanley, Golec and Covic under pressure. The referee didn’t aid matters with his seemingly endless awarding of free kicks to Al Hilal, with every contested meeting between players in red and black versus those in blue ending in the home team’s favour. Fast and creative, the Saudi team were playing as if they were chasing the win, and all I could feel as I watched was a gnawing worry in my gut, that we would concede and the dream of an Asian title would crumble with an Al Hilal goal.
However as the game went on in its scoreless manner there was that kernel of hope that kept sustaining me. Through every shot from the misfiring Al Hilal strikers, through every controversial decision from the Japanese referee, through every last minute clearance from NTS or heroic save from Ante Covic, the seemingly doomed chance of an AFC Champions’ League title stayed alive. Half time brought some respite, and discussing the validity of the claims for a penalty that was denied Al Hilal, and my assertion that Vitor Saba was volatile helped divert some of the tension. There had also been some pyro ignited by certain ultra fans, and to be honest it was something visually engaging yet also a pain in the arse when I began coughing my lungs up. However I was glad of the display in that it gave my racing mind something else to latch on, aside from the nervous trauma of watching the Wanderers under the pump in Riyadh.
The second half was, if at all possible, almost twice as stressful that the preceding one. There was more controversy courtesy of another claim for a penalty for the home team, waved away emphatically by the referee (perhaps suffering from nerves himself after his display in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup between Brazil and Croatia). Tomi, Vitor and Spira each came on as Popa rang in the changes. Unfortunately unlike last Saturday the effect on possession and attacking opportunities were minimal, and there was to be no repeat of the magical goal from Golec and Juric as staged in the Wanderland leg. Play opened up a little and there was one or two minor chances from the Wanderers, however it was mostly one way traffic, all towards the goal guarded by Ante. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and those last fifteen minutes or so after a confidence building Poznan in Centenary square was simply a festival of Covic’s acrobatic heroics. In the 86th minute his effort at keeping out an almost certain scoring shot was arguably the best ever save from any Australian goalkeeper in any game ever:
I have seen a lot of good and some great Australian goalies over the years; Jack Riley, Allan Maher, Terry Greedy, Robert Zabica, Mark Bosnich and of course the magisterial Mark Schwartzer, and the last mentioned has a true candidate for save of Australian football’s history with his amazing stop on Zayaleta’s strike from the penalty spot. However the efforts of Covic not just in this match but in others during this AFC Champions’ League campaign are going to be the stuff of legend. Maybe I am succumbing to my own hyperbolic love of the Wanderers, however I would argue that the first statue erected of any player to have worn the red and black at Wanderland must be of Ante. On a slightly less excited note, surely he needs to be considered as at least the no.2 goalie in Ange Postecoglu’s AFC Cup Socceroos squad.
Back to the game itself, those last few minutes and particularly the excoriating stretched moments of injury time were simply agony. It was almost unbearable, yet fascinating and joyful as the game’s duration came closer and closer to ending. Then, at the 96th minute, came release:
It was a moment of pure elation, or unadulterated joy. In a paroxysm of happiness mixed in with disbelief I hugged my nearest red and black adorned compatriot, then went berko with glee. Everyone around me, from all the suburbs of western Sydney and beyond, Anglo or wog, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, rich or poor, man or woman…we all were united in euphoria.
In the next hour or so it was all about sharing the happiness, living in the moment, of being with my brothers and sisters who have put our hearts and minds behind the Western Sydney Wanderers. We sang ‘Campiones’, we chanted, we hugged, we danced, we fist-pumped all in true Dino Kresinger style. Tears were shed by some, for others there was the cathartic pleasure of laughing, letting go of the nervous tension that had been all too apparent during the match. Many of us in Centenary Square became angry at the disgusting bad-sportsmanship from the grubby Al Hilal striker Al-Shamrani, whose spitting and head butting was just as vile as Luis Suarez biting incident at Brazil 2014. However our hatred for such a dirty bastard was mollified a little by the fact he and his ineffective and impotent comrades lost what they arrogantly proclaimed as theirs without any concrete justification.
I could describe what happened in Parramatta in more detail but already many aspects are being lost in that forgetfulness you have when extreme happiness creates a memory fog. Plus, I didn’t stay around much longer after the presentation of the trophy was broadcast from Riyadh. The sun was shining and it’d been 24 hours since I’d last slept, plus I wanted to get home to my beloved and share my glee whilst watching whatever I could on TV focused on the Wanderers.
After the rest of the morning and some hours in the afternoon passed in sleep I woke to watch the recording I had of the game. I couldn’t bear to watch the entire match again; it had been far too stressful the first go around. Instead I watched the last few minutes of play and then the celebrations for the boys over in Saudi Arabia. There was one last moment of catharsis, of release, when I saw Vitor Saba cry with joy in the arms of Tony Popovic. I’m not ashamed to say I blubbered a little…nay, a farken lot, watching those scenes from earlier that glorious day. It was the perfect end point for a perfect night and day. I have now got a trifecta of euphoric experiences in my life through the agency of sport, and right now it is the greatest of them all.