Growing up in country Australia, football was never likely to be my passion. Ricky Walford. Brandy Alexander. Chicka Ferguson. An unshakeable loathing for the maroon of Queensland. These were my heroes, my abiding memories from childhood.
Mum took one look at me: giraffe-neck, scrawny as a pencil, all elbows and kneecaps, and signed me up for Moree Hot Bread Shop football team. I probably cried at the injustice of it but a few games in, sideline adulation turned me around.
Football was my game now and just months later, an unforgettable birthday surprise arrived – tickets to watch the Socceroos. Australia v Israel at Sydney Football Stadium would be a father-son bonding trip, with World Cup qualification on the line.
The sight of a then-record 40,000 people packed into a ground will never leave me; it was four times our town. And they were boisterous, fervently engaged, passionately connected and, terrifyingly, most likely sober.
My first memory was lines. Lines to get in. Lines at the merchandise tent. Lines for the toilet. Several times. I was a child, after all.
Despite the Socceroos playing in block gold shirts and green shorts, my first ever jersey looked something else. A confused mess of incoherent yellow and sickly green – so infamous, it would decades later become known as “the spew kit”. It was several sizes too big; probably on special.
Very few in the crowd wore national team jerseys. Football was still almost a novelty for mainstream Australia. Behind hoardings for Winfield Blue and Fosters was a motley collection of some of the least fashionable people you could imagine, revelling in a decade that became a byword for fashion’s nadir.
Shortly before half-time Israel scored. A middle-aged man with a Tom Selleck moustache, two-tone brown shirt and dark-tinted sunglasses clutched his head with both hands. A woman, stonewash jeans and iridescent red hair, howled for offside – her anger a visceral wave. I was swept up amid a sea of distended faces, arms gesticulating.
In the second half it started getting tense. Like a Copa América grudge match, there was a who’s who of shithousery on display. Israeli players pushed referee Carlo Longhi for failing to censure a brazen hack on the flying Ronny Rosenthal, tricky winger Frank Farina got kicked to kingdom come. Time wasting, injury faking. At stake for Australia was a fourth failed campaign in a row and 16 years in the wilderness.
At about 80 minutes my dad started getting agitated; Moore Park traffic was a notorious bottleneck. Too young to realise the social stigma attached to those that leave early, I was just desperate to stay as long as I could – not to miss a single second of this human pageantry.
In the shadow of full-time, Australia equalised. I could sense the palpable shift in emotions around me, Paul Trimboli’s 88th-minute strike introduced flickering hope – to mingle amid despair, frustration and consternation. It was the bedrock of feelings I would come to know in time as “Australian football”.
Eventually the whistle sounded, just seconds into added time to the ire of everyone around me – a draw saw Australia out. Not that we stayed to roll the taste across our tongues, we were quickly into the scrum of human bodies, sour with sweat, occasionally a waft of perfume, pushing for the exits.
Forty five minutes later, in the front seat of dad’s XD Ford Falcon – over 250,000 km on the engine from countless trips between country and city – my child’s bladder could no longer hold on.
Dad was furious; we wouldn’t have inched more than 200m from the stadium exit by then. The kid lawyer in me resisted prosecuting the argument that he hadn’t let me go at full-time because “we had to beat the traffic”.
Years later I would come to realise I’d seen Oscar Crino and Eddie Krncevic, legends of the game like Charlie Yankos, Farina, Graham Arnold or Paul Wade, in the flesh. But at the time I just stung with utter humiliation. As apt a beginning as any for a 30-year love affair with Australian football.