What could have been a barmy spring evening at CommBank Stadium in Parramatta turned into a monsoon as Australia’s Socceroos marked their long-awaited return to action on home soil with a tough encounter against Saudi Arabia. The visitors were leaders of the World Cup qualifying group, and it was clear that it was not a fluke.
For an 8pm kick off at a stadium less than 10km from home, the 4.15pm departure time sounded early, but for this one there was a lot to do beforehand and the afternoon rush hour was already underway. Michelle was the holder of some of the Active Support equipment and we were en route soon after. Meeting the many other faces of the support crew at the impressive CommBank Stadium at 5pm, we were eventually ushered in the stage entrance to begin the process of setting up the home end with flags, banners and a tifo that would get its first airing tonight. Spying football nobility Alex Brosque, Amy Duggan, Heather Garriock and Danny Townsend all heading into the stadium early, we were sure there’d be a bumper crowd.
There was a run through of the running-order and the tifo, and a couple of interviews from the Football Australia media guru – I fear there may be a cringe-worthy effort from yours truly, but Hugo was on fire.
The stadium floodlights coming on and some distant drumming coming from outside the stadium signalled that we should be on our way to the pre-match meet at the Woolpack in the middle of Parramatta. The stadium was looking bloody marvellous when we were escorted out.
The short walk to the pub saw us arrive in a venue that was full of yellow and green shirts. It was a proper pre-match scenario that has been missed so much. Credit to the manager of the venue who was working the room and no doubt delighted to see so many people in on a Thursday evening; the kitchen was pumping out the food and the bar was doing a roaring trade. Meeting up with local and interstate supporters was a treat, our Melbourne visitors ready for their first bite of live top-flight football for what seems like an eternity. We had four minutes to devour our dinner before heading out into what was now a rainy evening in Western Sydney.
The streets were packed. This was still 45 minutes before kick off, and Saudi fans mingled with Socceroos supporters on the walk back up to CommBank Stadium. The queues were forming and the vax checks and bag searches would take a little time to navigate. That all done, it was time to get straight down to the Active bay and join the throng. Thankfully the Sydney FC crew were in attendance to bolster the atmosphere and the rain held up as the players came out and the tifo was given its extended moment of glory.
The welcome to country, the Saudi anthem and then a rousing Advance Australia Fair got the crowd buzzing and the arrival of the saxophone started to build some atmosphere as the game kicked off to a big roar.
Unfortunately that’s when the rain started and the Active bay was absolutely drenched. The football was tense. Maty Ryan gave us a few nervy moments holding onto the ball to tease the attackers in, the defence looked good, but any promise of attack seemed to disappear as the play was slowed up instead of taking on the man. A fizzing cross from the left looked close to an attacking toe, maybe Martin Boyle, and Awer Mabil blazed one high and handsome. The Saudis had their chances too, Aziz Behich doing well to block a great chance on the visitors’ right. The play-acting of the Saudis wasn’t as pathetic as some Asian teams we’ve seen here, but there were a few moments where a player writhed on the floor then jumped up to play on. Cut that shit out please. To be fair, the ref let a lot of stuff go, and both sides benefitted from the outstretched arms of ‘play on’ on more than one occasion. Goalless at the break, Graham Arnold had his work cut out to get the Aussies firing in the second half, shooting towards their own fans.
The Active bay had been doing its utmost to get the crowd going, and an influx of new faces as the second half started meant that it had done its job – those who wanted to be in amongst it were getting amongst it. The one chant that kills the mood – Aussie Aussie Aussie – was met with narrowing eyes by some, but the introduction of some Scottish fans to the mix brought out some fun chants, the David Bowie one about Martin Boyle, playing on the right, now cemented into the sparse Socceroos songbook.
The football was exciting. A low cross from Boyle on the right after his defender slipped was touched away by the keeper, then Mabil tested the keeper from a free kick after a lengthy injury stoppage. The fans in the main stand thought the ball had gone in, but it was always looping wide. A bit of Aussie aggro saw the Saudi number 17 booked for ridiculous play-acting in front of the bench. Matt Leckie seemed to bundle his defender off the ball in a chase for a speculative through ball and had a clear shot on goal from a tight angle which was saved and Jackson Irvine fluffed his shot from ten yards. The game swung Saudi Arabia’s way as the game went on, and some lovely tiki-taka football saw them fashion a glorious chance that Mat Ryan easily saved. It was up the other end through the pouring rain, and it looked a lot closer to the goal than we found from the replay. – such a relief when the Saudi players didn’t make their way to the corner to celebrate. Another chance was punched away by Ryan, then there was another stoppage, this time for an Aussie defender to receive treatment. The last chance was a Saudi header that went just wide, and Australia had to be content with the point.
This was no Matildas game – the players did the briefest walk around to applaud the crowd, Trent Sainsbury the most animated as if he really appreciated being back. Rhyan Grant got a lot of love from the Active bay and at least one player gave up their shirt before the players all disappeared down the tunnel. The pack up was as quick as possible, all the flags weighing a lot more coming out than they did going in. The stadium was deserted by now, and the prawn sandwich brigade and media pack was starting to file out too. There was no rush though, the car park was at full standstill. Like a scene from the centre of Paris on any given day, every car was blasting its horn and eventually the cars started to move and the red snake of lights made its way out of the car park.
Back home via a sneaky Maccas by 11pm and straight into a hot shower and a marvellous day was done.
What a fine evening of football, despite the result and the lack of goals. The Socceroos active support did their country proud in a stadium where 22,000 might have been a slight overstatement of the crowd – a lot of people would have seen the weather and seen the quality of the Channel 10 coverage and decided not to show. The usual feedback of ‘couldn’t hear any of the songs’, ‘there’s no atmosphere’, ‘I wish the chants were less rehearsed’ came from people sitting around the stadium. I can happily confirm that it was loud and boisterous where I was, perhaps the acoustics of the stadium don’t lend themselves to a single bay trying to evoke an atmosphere for the whole venue. And there was absolutely no rehearsal of any songs, there were a few new ones in fact, and it was quite the buzz towards the end of the game as the crowd tried to lift the team to get that elusive goal. People wanted to be part of it, supporters moved into the area at half-time to get amongst the action and people wanted a go on the drums. If you want an atmosphere at your stadium, get yourself in the Active bay and get involved, don’t just sit high in the stands and pass comment.
A week off now, before we’re back to CommBank Stadium for the opening game of the A-League Men’s season for Sydney FC at the Wanderers. What a prospect. This is a lovely place to watch football.