Steamy Socceroos win in tropical Melbourne

This wonderful footballing week was wrapped up on Thursday night with a crucial World Cup qualifier at AAMI Park. Extreme conditions continued that had kept the locals inside in aircon and we were treated to a hot and steamy evening with lightning, fireworks, smoke, and some lovely football from the Green and Gold. World Cup qualification is still in our hands, but it will not be easy.

Remember to swipe the photos if you’re on your phone.

We had been in Melbourne since Tuesday’s Big Blue, staying just around the corner from the sporting precinct, and we had an 11am meet at the gate to help with the set up. Flags that we’d last seen at Commbank Stadium in Parramatta were unfurled and placed around the away end, although a delay to Hugo’s flight meant that another set of banners and flags would be coming later in the day. The field was looking immaculate, the groundsmen were measuring and re-checking the line-markings. There was a strange plague of bugs bouncing off our legs as we walked close to the playing surface and all the usual livery in the stadium had been completely overhauled with World Cup signage and flags.

A few broken seats cast aside at the front of the active bay was a by-product of Tuesday’s eager and energetic home support, and the stickers around the bay were very Melbourne-centric as you would expect. Set up was quick, and we were escorted out of the stadium by our FA chaperone. Time for a bit of sight-seeing.

The Melbourne Victory players had just finished training and were off into the pool area but were happy to pose for a photo with a rival fan. Very approachable bunch of lads. The warm conditions were now baking hot, and we wandered back along Swan Street and found a spot for lunch. Plenty of sights to see in what is a really interesting side of this Aussie Rules-crazy city to discover on foot.

Now changed and freshened up ready for the football, we took the opportunity to head back to Melbourne Olympic Park and meet up with the rest of our crew for a spot of Australian Open tennis. Not every pre-game gives us such an opportunity, and with last minute tickets secured, we caught the men’s doubles semi-final and the first set of Dylan Alcott’s final. The players must have been roasting out there, and the majority of the stylish outdoor catering venues were empty with little shade from the fierce sun. Mind you, $24 for a glass of champagne might have been another reason.

It felt wrong to be leaving Aussie hero Dylan in his time of need as he scrapped to stay in the first set, but it felt so right to be heading to the nearby Cricketers Arms to see how the Active support was congregating before the big game. Glad to report that there were plenty of green and gold shirts and there was no doubt that this would be a good crowd.

The Cricketers Arms, right across from Richmond FC’s home and the MCG, is a lovely spot, rough around the edges, but with a canteen hatch, beer garden, retro pinball machines, pool hall and balcony, this was the ideal spot for a pre-game meet-up. The Active fans then congregated outside the front of the pub, back in stifling conditions, and began their march to the stadium.

There were crowds of people making their way to the stadium, all patiently waiting to cross the big intersection, and plenty of red Vietnam shirts amongst the throng. This was going to be a fantastic spectacle, a mix of cultures coming together in their desire for live international football after such a long time. Getting into the stadium was relaxed and efficient, the gates moving quickly and decisions being made on the fly by security to keep people moving through the gates and past the vaccine checks. “Doesn’t matter what it says on your ticket, there’s no-one at Gate 3.” Good work.

We quickly found our seats, which were in the bay next to active, right at the front of a section so we had lots of leg room. Beer lines were massive, so not an option, and we were ready now to soak up the atmosphere. The players came out, the smoke drifted from the Active bay, the fireworks zoomed and the national anthems were belted out.

Unfortunately the official flags of the various associations at play here were all snarled up in the breeze; there were lots and lots of red shirts, the Vietnamese population of Melbourne out in force to support their team. Glad to report that clackers were back, those sheets of card that fold into a concertina-like shape and make a racket when clapped in the hand. Bring them back for every game I say.

The game was exciting. The Vietnam fans were potentially louder than the Australian Active, at least from our position, and it was clear that the crowd would be made up of a decent percentage of ‘away’ fans. The ball was in the net within the first minute, eventually correctly ruled out, with Tom Rogic finishing well but understandably an offside flag spoiled the early party. Joel King was in for the missing Aziz Behich, and there was a feeling of frustration as the game went on without a goal. The goals did come though, first Jamie McLaren thumping home a free header, then Tom Rogic finishing sweetly to make it 2-0 just before the break. Vietnam had plenty of the ball and had their fans in a frenzy with several promising positions, but they couldn’t find the final ball into the box.

Half time, I went for a walk right around the stadium, taking in various gates in order to see which view might be the best. Jason Davidson was happy to pose for fans, although he was ‘off-duty’ and would have been incognito if it wasn’t for his pink hair. A presentation of Socceroos caps by Football Australia’s James Johnson then took place in the corner next to where Sydney FC had been on Tuesday, a little tucked out of the way. Good to see some legendary names get the recognition they deserve, including Mark Bresciano and Josh Brillante. The queue for a beer and for a bathroom break was huge, most people just giving up and getting neither, but the sight of mobile snack sellers was welcome; that’s something we should see a lot more to be honest.

The second half was great entertainment as Vietnam ignited their fans whenever they were in possession, and Australia poured forward in search of more goals. Mat Ryan produced a wonder save on the hour, a low cross dummied and a fierce drive from close range turned away spectacularly – on later viewing it might have been straight at him and he was simply in the way, but it looked impressive in real time.

The rain had started now and there were worrying signs of big flashes of lightning and some slight dulling of the floodlights; surely we wouldn’t be subject to a storm delay or worse still a floodlight failure! Two funny incidents made this entertaining for the spectators in the stadium. First, a flare was thrown on the field behind the Vietnam goal and started to spew out orange smoke. A marshal raced around to pick it up – they have a bucket of water positioned nearby to deal with such scenarios – and had to do the dash with the flare back around the advertising hoardings. By the time he reached his bucket, he looked like a mad fan racing around with his flare, waving it in the air and spreading the smoke everywhere, which the crowd lapped up. Then, down in the corner, a fan handed his phone to a fellow supporter, opened a gate and jogged onto the field next to the photographers, posing on his knee like a player. The other fan took photos, before the pitch invader leapt up and jogged back to the gate. He could see the stewards converging and his jog ended up a sprint before disappearing down the access tunnel to his fate. I guess we’ll not see him at a football game for a while.

The game was wrapped up late on by two super subs. The impressive Craig Goodwin latched on to a searching through ball to finish beautifully and sink to his knees in joy, then Goodwin set up the lively Riley McGree to finish right in front of us with an expert shot from a difficult position outside the box. There was time for more, but despite pressing hard, the scoring was over and the game was won, and the final whistle blew on a marvellous game.

The players eventually started a lap of honour, heading the long way around to end up at the active bay. No one was leaving at our end, and the crowd remained big by the time they reached the North terrace.

It looked as though the fans wouldn’t get a proper celebration until Jackson Irvine called in everyone and they linked arms to show their appreciation and celebrate the win with the excellent Active support. Mat Ryan eventually made it around, looking like batman in his skin tight attire, the cardboard cutout from the concourse having made it down the bottom to be reunited with the man himself.

AAMI Park was in pack-up mode straight away, the cameras were being quickly removed from the rain, the Active support flags were soaked but were easily dismantled and stuffed in Hugo’s bag and we finally left the stadium into the warm drizzle to head back past the tennis and into the night, our thoughts turning to the 1am Matildas kick off at the Women’s Asian Cup.

What a smashing day at the football. Melbourne, you’ve been great. You’ve been hot. But the appetite for sport in this city is immense. The Socceroos move on to Oman for another cup final; we’ve simply got to win every game to qualify, and we need to have our wits about us in this one. All eyes on Japan v Saudi Arabia if we do win. Come on Australia, despite the World Cup being in Qatar, we do still want to have the option of going. Best of luck!

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