In less than 48 hours the worlds biggest sporting event starts in South Africa – the 2010 FIFA World Cup – and I couldn’t be more excited.
Along with the Summer Olympic games, the World Cup remains at the top of my list of events I want to travel to at some point. While I’m not able to make it to South Africa this year, I will get to one in the next decade. Of that I’m sure.
My love of the world game wasn’t always there though. Far from it. Growing up in small towns outside of Melbourne, Australia, you could easily be led to believe that the only sports that existed in the world were cricket and Australian rules football. Football, (or soccer as its known at home) never even entered the conversation – or if it was, it was considered inferior to our own football only played by “foreigners”.
My first exposure to the most popular game in the world came when I briefly attended a school in inner city Melbourne at the age of 9. My new school mates invited me to play some football at lunch time, but when I got there, I asked where the football was. It was a football, but not as I knew it.
While I soon moved back to the country and never played the “new” football I had been introduced to again, the seeds had been planted. I had learnt that other games do exist. They weren’t better or worse, just different. In the end I adopted another “foreign” sport, basketball as my game of choice.
It wasn’t until the 1998 World Cup that I started to finally take notice of the game loved by billions in the world. Like much of Australia, I thought the Socceroos were a great chance of making it to the finals in France, with only Iran standing in our way. Unfortunately, it wasn’t yet our time, with the lasting memory of Mark Bosnich being left on the ground as the equaliser went past him to leave Australia short after being so close.
Moving to Melbourne in 1998 to go to university, I met a lot of people passionate about football and looking forward to the World Cup. It rubbed off on me. I watched a lot of matches during that World Cup and from that point on became a big fan of international football.
That passion for the international game didn’t translate into me becoming a fan of the local game however. The local league, the NSL, was in shambles with fighting and ethnic violence among the fans. It didn’t encourage the new fan to get involved.
When it was time for internationals though, I was back on board. Qualifying for the 2002 World Cup was once again seen as our chance to make it to the world stage, however like ’98, our boys fell at the last hurdle. It seemed the most talented generation of Socceroos since the 70’s was destined to never make the big time.
Once the 2002 World Cup rolled around though, many forgot about the disappointments of our team and enjoyed an immensely entertaining tournament – for the first time ever in a time zone which gave us prime time viewing. The big games were even televised on a major commercial television station. It seemed that Australia was finally catching on to the world game. It wouldn’t last.
With the NSL still in strife, the major Australian codes quickly regained the ascendency and football was relegated to a side note once again, This time, however, I continued to become more of a fan of the game itself, watching more European club football, and taking interest in the news that Australian club football was finally starting to talk about a makeover.
In 2005 I finally packed up my bags and headed out to see some of the world. When Australia finally qualified – in a gripping penalty shootout – for the 2006 World Cup, I was working in an insurance office in England, getting text message updates from my friends. While my new colleagues thought I was crazy, I was ecstatic – they’d finally made it.
By the time the 2006 World Cup rolled around I was living in Scotland. Being a backpacker, I had many other backpacker friends and as such, every game had some interest to somebody in our circle. So for a month we hit the local sports pubs watching game after game.
I actually managed to get to a warm up game between South Korea and Ghana, and while nothing was on the line, it was great to be able to see the passionate fan bases of both teams come out and support their teams as they got ready for the big event.
Australia’s first shot at the finals in 32 years was successful, despite the misery at the end. Cahil sparked 3 goals in less than 10 minutes to come from behind against Japan, while a tense and sometimes spiteful 2-all draw against Croatia was enough to see us through the final 16. While the final 16 match against Italy ended in bitter disappointment, Australia had announced itself on the world stage.
Since then the revamped local competition – now called the A-League – has gone from strength to strength, and upon my return to Australia in 2008 I even attended a game of the Melbourne Victory. The Victory are also about to get a new stadium – the first purpose built major soccer stadium in Melbourne.
The Australian team has evolved too, now part of the Asian federation, the team has a chance to play together more often, in more meaningful competitions, and dominated qualifying for this coming World Cup, as well as next year’s Asian Cup.
For now, the Socceroos prepare for just their 3rd World Cup Finals appearance, and their second in succession, and the first test – 3 time World Cup champions Germany on Sunday.
While for the second straight time, I’m out of Australia for the World Cup, I know that an increasing number of my countrymen are supporting the team and are ready to enjoy the biggest sporting event the world has to offer.
Bring on Friday!