Round-the-World Game

Vicky Daddo discovers that football is not the same on the other side of the world – but now football is coming home.

I’m nine years old, thumping my frozen feet on the concrete of the Carshalton Athletic Football Club stand, south of London, with my dad and brother. Mum’s at home, probably enjoying the peace.

I’m 13 years old, close to the sidelines as the legendary Conrad Kane runs the right wing. “Take the bloody ball with you,” someone yells. The stand erupts into laugher as the player doubles back, empty-footed.

I’m 23, driving back from the south coast. Bolstered by a 13-0 victory, I let myself dream about the blind date I’m going on later. Another win, or a nil-all draw?

I’m 31, and I’ve married the Australian blind date. We’ve migrated to AFL territory. It’s a cold autumn night and I’m quietly cheering my beloved Arsenal in the FA Cup Final. My parents and brother will be watching in the pleasant warmth of an English spring. We win. But it’s a strange feeling, celebrating in the wee hours, without fellow fans, in another hemisphere, where the name of the game is different and nobody seems to care. “Soccer? That’s boring. Nil-nil? Who wants to watch that?”

Only about 2.4 billion people. But never mind.

With four children and a new outdoor life, soccer becomes a thing to read about in column inches. It’s the losing side of a debate as I try to explain its magnetism to a one-eyed Demons supporter. Why can’t they understand the delicious anticipation of a goal, the terror of hanging on to a one-nil lead, the utter devastation of a last-minute equaliser, the horror of a penalty shoot-out, the artistic splendour of a dribble and cut through, the cringe of a badly delivered goalie’s throw that leads to a goal, the heart-swell of a long-sought victory over rivals?

As my boys grow, they join the local team, but even supporting my own flesh and blood playing this oval-ball sport is a challenge. I find Aussie Rules scrappy and bullish. Nobody seems to understand the rules – and, according to those barracking, least of all the umpires.

Carshalton Athletic becomes a distant wisp of childhood. Arsenal play on in a different plane. The Aussie media remind me that soccer is a game for thugs. But then comes a family trip to the UK in 2016, my first visit in 15 years. Our skin is prickled by the roar of Iceland’s ‘Viking Clap’ as they eliminate England from Euro 16. The kids are given a brief insight into the exhausting push-pull of being an England fan. In our Lionhearts lives the knowledge that a group of ultra-talented players can, and should, produce world-beating results. But often, they crumble to minnows. Fans feed off the anticipation, but their loyalty is often whittled away by the underperformances.

We return home, and the chance purchase of a Fetch Box leads to a free trial of Optus Sport. What do you know, they’re showing Premier League matches and Euro 2020. My parents, now retired Down Under, turn up at dark o’clock in the morning to watch the matches live. The Three Lions make it to the final, only to lose to arch rivals Italy. England has accumulated many soccer rivals over the decades – something to do with empires and wars. In fact, the team is pretty much hated the world over. But still we watch and cheer and cry and hope.

For my birthday, I receive an Arsenal team shirt. I wear it to every game, cheering not from a concrete stand in real time, but from my recliner during Sunday morning replays. My husband supports a different club, and there is banter, but we’ve rediscovered our shared love of a game that’s truly beautiful.

There’s a famous English footballing song that was a hit when I married Blind Date. ‘It’s Coming Home’ was written and performed by English comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel for the Euro 96 campaign. Its title is headlined by the zealous English press before every major tournament and, of course, it – the winners’ trophy – hasn’t come home. We hang onto our 1966 World Cup win like Aussies cling to the America’s Cup of 1983.

Then women’s sports explode into the mainstream. The Lionesses bring home the European Championship trophy in 2022. It’s an emotional victory for a fan so used to failure – and it tastes sweeter given it was the women’s team, often devalued and mocked, that got the job done.

With the Women’s World Cup, I have the pleasure of supporting both Australia and England. There is double the chance for it to come home, as the Matildas hope for hometown glory, and the Lionesses look to win on the world stage. But wherever the trophy lands, football has come home to me and that’s enough.

By Vicky Daddo
Vicky Daddo lives in Gippsland. She writes short fiction and novels. Vicky is a Writers Victoria regional ambassador and president of the Gippsland Writers Network.

Published in #691