The Agony, the Ecstasy and the Insanity of the World Cup

The Agony, the Ecstasy and the Insanity of the World Cup

“Zer aliens must zink ve are crazy,” Heinrich used to say, pointing at the sky. “Zey are vatching us from up zer, and ve are just screaming at 22 men chasing a ball around zer paddock.”

I never found out how Heinrich ended up in Inverell, a dusty town in north-western New South Wales, but I first met him in 2005 when I was picked for his Joeys soccer team. We were a group of 14 and 15 year-old kids from towns with names like Armidale, Tamworth and Glen Innes. A year later, he took us to his home country, Germany, to play a series of tournaments and show bemused Germans how we play their game. To many of the young Joeys – named because we were, according to Heinrich, the next generation of Socceroos – it was a chance to improve their skills and perhaps even get scouted for a Bundesliga youth team. For the rest of us, it was a six-week pursuit of the very foundations of adolescent male existence – beer and heavy petting – interspersed with the odd soccer game. A visit to a lake in the east abruptly became our first time at a nude beach. We repeatedly snuck out of dorms and sport schools to go drinking, lying about our age to bartenders who were amused enough to believe we were 16 (the drinking age in Germany). We went to a lake for a swim and lost our minds when we found literal acres of bare breasts. One morning, Heinrich said he had “a very special surprise” for us and literally threw open the gates to an all-girls high school, unleashing us on the catcalling students and their hapless teachers. We were there to “help them with their English”, apparently. This was where I got my first taste of travelling independence and it stuck.

The highlight, however, came on June 12th at Kaiserslautern’s Fritz-Walter Stadium. Heinrich managed to snag us tickets to Australia’s match against Japan, our first World Cup appearance since 1974. I wrapped my Socceroos jersey around my head and tied an Australian flag around my neck. My friend Karl – our right full-back – and I wrote lame religious puns on each other’s chests: “In Guus we trust” on mine and “I believe in Jesus aka Josh Kennedy” on Karl’s. We sat high in the corner of the stands, at the edge of an ocean of green-and-gold fans. At the far end of the stadium, the blue of the Japanese fans shimmered as they celebrated an early goal. In the dying stages of the game, as we stewed on the anticlimax before us, Tim Cahill suddenly became a national hero and Australia had its first ever win at the World Cup. We Joeys, of course, went ballistic, embracing strangers like fervent lovers. In all the commotion, I accidentally punched our goalkeeper in the face. As the teams kicked off for the last time after John Aloisi’s injury-time goal, the opening verses of “Waltzing Matilda” boomed from the Australian end of the stands. Outside, Germans congratulated us and a few Australian fans consoled the polite smiles of the Japanese.

It was a blip, a mere footnote in the history of Germany 2006.

*          *          *

Karl and I are sweaty, grimy and hankering for a hamman in downtown Marrakesh. Four years have passed since Germany 2006 and we’ve just returned from M’hamid, ten hours’ drive away on Algerian border. While we slept under stars in the immense silence that cloaks the Moroccan Sahara, the Dutch national team defeated their Uruguayan counterparts and claimed a place in the World Cup final against Spain. Contact with the Marrakesh air fouls the cleanliness of the hammam, and the souks, mountains and mosques around us are forgotten as we head to the station. The final is in two days.

We take an overnight train north to Tangier, and when we realise we’ve forgotten our dinner, a young man shares bread and sweets. We ignore Tangier’s ramshackle facades and the lure of seedy alleyways, taking a taxi straight to the ferry terminal. From the ferry we watch the gleaming Rock of Gibraltar cruise by, and in Algeciras we dodge hustlers and snag seats on a bus to anywhere that isn’t Algeciras. Late in the evening we stagger into a Malaga hostel, hot and grimy once again.

*          *          *

I remember, as a seven year old, being woken by my dad at hours way past my bedtime to watch France 1998. I remember Ronaldo’s disbelief as the French put three goals away in the final. I remember the commentator, Martin Tyler, screaming “Michael Oweeen!” as the young Englishman scored in the round of 16. But most of all, I remember the Orange of the Dutch team. I remember Dennis Bergkamp using his toes to pluck a ball out of mid-air and score against Argentina. And I remember Ronald de Boer missing his penalty in the semi-final shootout, sending Brazil into the final and crushing Dutch hopes. My dad is from the Netherlands, and although he passed on to me the high forehead, the fair hair and the stinginess of that country, I am Dutch only in name. I have, however, also inherited the pain that comes with being a supporter of the Oranje. Dad is still waiting for his country to win the World Cup, and so am I.


*          *          *

In Malaga in 2010, there is talk of catching a flight to Amsterdam.

“If Holland wins, I want to be there when it happens,” I’m telling Karl, who is happy to stay in Spain. But the flights are full or beyond my modest price range, and on the eve of kick-off, we ask our hostel’s owner how to get to the city’s bull ring. We’ve heard there will be a big screen.

“You’re Dutch, aren’t you?” replies the owner.

I’ve been travelling on a Dutch passport since my Australian one expired.

“I’m not telling you where it is. If you go there wearing orange, they’ll tear you apart,” he says.

I find a few orange trinkets to drape over myself and Karl buys a Spanish flag. He is, after all, an impartial observer. The ring is already packed with young Spaniards draped in red when we arrive, and we take a place in the stands. The game is tight and the Dutch, it must be said, do not play well. At one point Arjen Robben takes a dive and as he writhes and holds his ankle on the screen, the crowd turn to group of blonde girls in orange shirts in the stands and chant “¡Putas Holandesas! ¡Putas Holandesas!” Then Andrés Iniesta scores Spain’s deserved winning goal and Malaga’s bull ring erupts. Flares are lit, dousing the crowds in a weird neon light. Spaniards are pulling their hair, clutching at each other in disbelief. Several people around us have been eyeing me off all game, and now they embrace me and say things that sound sympathetic.

Everyone streams into the streets and a man on a motorbike screams past, his front wheel high in the air and a flag whipping at his back. Everyone is looking for beer or a bar but there is none. Nobody’s working on a night like tonight. Without anywhere else to go, the citizens of Malaga congregate in a nearby plaza around a flagpole, a huge Spanish flag hanging limp in the humidity of a summer evening. I have dried my eyes and stripped myself of all orange, wrapping myself in Spanish fervour – traitorous, I know – and Karl and I take a seat atop a billboard for a better view. We start beating out a simple rhythm against the billboard with our feet and about fifty Spaniards start dancing around us. A young man starts climbing the flagpole, shimmying up towards the flag until his strength leaves him and he slides back towards the crowd. Five, 10 more of them try the same thing, and the crowd sighs as each fails. Then another emerges over the heads of the crowd, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans and moving with purpose. When he reaches out and grabs the flag, it’s like Spain have won the World Cup all over again and the man becomes a god. He leaps down into the crowd and the next man steps up.

*          *          *

Out in space, some rookie alien analyst is probably trying to prepare his biannual report, eager to please his superiors at the alien intelligence agency he works for. Standing in front of the conference room, shuffling through the notes in his “Earth” file, the young alien isn’t quite sure what to say.

“I don’t know what happened,” he stammers in his alien language. “Everything was going along as normal – well, as normal as it gets down there – and then all of sudden they just completely, collectively went out of their tiny minds.”

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