Do or die, winner takes all, judgement day, a pivotal night in Australian football. A night when hope was still in abundance with five minutes remaining and one goal would do it, but ultimately a night where expectations were met and the Arnie Out sentiment replaced the positive vibe that had threatened to propel the Socceroos to an unlikely victory.
We’d been busy for this one, Socceroos Active guru Michelle had stepped up production of two-stick flags for this crucial game. A few of the simpler designs made my way and were drying right up to the moment they were whisked away to the stadium at 1.30pm for set up. The evening itself began at 5pm when Aurelia’s gang rocked up after school and we headed to the Locker Room, just opposite the stadium, via train to Concord West and a walk though Bicentennial Park. No rain, but the threat in the air. I was stopped for an interview with Japanse News and a small group of Japanese fans was out-touristing me with their photo taking.
The top floor of the Locker Room wasn’t overly busy, but as the evening continued and the crowd grew with the active support arriving from the first pub in Lidcombe, the queue for a drink was stupidly long. Thanks to the covered roof we were unaware that the rain was teeming down now, and stepping out to walk the 500 metres to Gate G was like stepping into the shower, streams of water gushing through the streets, torrential rain greeting the crowds of Socceroos fans. Standard Sydney weather. We were in 20 minutes before kick off, the banners were all still in place and we found our official seats, not that we would stay there. Oddly enough two other people arrived with tickets for the same seats, but this was never going to be a sell-out (it should always be!) and everyone stood wherever they liked, mostly on the seats.
Lots of familiar faces in and around the Active bay, and as kick off appoached the ‘pullover’ banner was in position and ready to be hoisted down the bay. The timing was a little off by the official who had a live link to the tunnel and we were left holding the banner for five minutes, those underneath not able to see anything. I’m sure it looked great though, and definitely added to the occasion.
The safe-smokies and the misty rain combined to give an eerie mystical atmosphere as the anthems, an especially slow one for Australia, were well received and respected. This was it. The time was now, now or never.
The drums were beating, the capo was lively, the acoustics in Accor Stadium don’t lend themselves to successful chanting, the front and the back of the bay getting out of time very quickly, but the renovations at the ‘away’ end that were underway last time we were here have made such a difference to the match day experience. The huge screen that goes from one side to the other means no action is missed and everyone can see a screen. The field is so far away, you kinda do need it to see what’s happening at the far end.
The football? Well, it was one-way traffic for a lot of the first half, Japan hit the underside of the bar from a fantastic header right in front of us, and then hit the crossbar again later in the first half. Mitch Duke stuck a boot out and nearly got lucky, deflecting a shot just wide. Australia did have possession, and had the ball in the net from a looping cross that was bundled in, but the referee had seen something and it was no surprise when the whistle went and the VAR check was quickly dismissed. On that, we had no idea whether or not VAR was in play until then; I guess it served its purpose for whatever the infringement was. The game was somehow 0-0 at the break, we should have been behind, Mat Ryan making an outrageous stop at the feet of the striker in a one-on-one and Australia being picked apart by the lively Japanese midfield. Another massive queue for beer at the break, no way I was going to wait in that. Honestly, why can’t someone come up wth a better way? Vending machines, more kiosks selling just cans of beer? An esky with everything for $10, no change? It’s the same old shit every half-time in any game that has more than 5,000 people, and the vendors are missing out massively on sales as a result.
The second half was more of the same, Australia pushing but no joy, and as the half wore on, the game began to open up. Japan missed a number of half-chances, Trent Sainsbury saved with his knees and got lucky with the rebound, Mat Ryan was almost closed down on his kicks, but the Socceroos hung in there. The unlikely hero Bruno Fornaroli came on to great acclaim – Australia loves his kind of story – and Arnie had thrown his wildcard into the ring. When Marco Tilio came on and danced through three tackles, we were lamenting that he hadn’t come on earlier. Ajdin Hrustic shot just wide up our end to leave us with hands on heads, and we had good positions but never threatened. As the game was heating up and the last five minutes were reaching fever-pitch, Japan took the lead with a clever move and a cool finish. The bench erupted and raced onto the field to celebrate. They followed it up with a late goal from a mazy dribble that Ryan should have saved, the ball squirming through his hands to roll in to seal our fate.
Despte some blindly optimistc shouts of ‘We’re gonna win 3-2’ as the game rolled to its anticlimax, the Arnie Out calls were loud and clear. The fans streamed out before the final whistle. It wasn’t a fire drill.
There was booing at the end. The players had a small crowd to show their appreciation to, Mat Ryan and Rhyan Grant the most appreciative, the pack-up was in full swing while the Japanese players celebrated with their sizeable bank of fans at the far end. The contrast of emotions was striking.
A quick detour to drop the flags at the car park, another quick decision to walk back to Concord West, and we were eventually home by 11.30pm. This had been a late one – the game didn’t finish til gone 10pm and we’d have some red-eyed teenagers (and adults) in the morning, crawling out of bed for school.
So, another famous night at Homebush averted, the Socceroos will have to do it the hard way. We’ve now got a pointless game with Saudi Arablia next week that no one will watch, before a week of madness in June sees us take on the UAE or Iraq, and the ultimate make-or-break game against the 5th place team in South America. We’ll all be tuning in at 10.30am on Friday morning to see Peru play Uruguay.
Big shout out tto the Active Socceroos fans tonight. The Active bay was a mix of people who wanted to get involved, and those who didn’t. The acoustics at Stadium Australia are hopeless and the weather was atrocious at the start. A colourful display, banners and flags, made a great atmosphere, but ultimately the occasion was not matched by what happened on the field.