No mercy from Socceroos in Sydney

A low-key Friday night friendly match at Commbank Stadium against fellow World Cup participants Ecuador turned up a positive performance from Australia’s national team as they showed a clinical edge to win 3-1. This was not an emotional welcome home to rival that of Argentina the day before, nothing like it in fact, Sydney’s football community will be savaged for not providing a bigger crowd, but those who were there did their best to create an appropriate atmosphere for the occasion. Football cannot fail to provide positivity during this World Cup year in Australia, and for the Socceroos on the field, this will be a very pleasing result.

When you have a midweek game in your own city, life gets in the way. There was no way I was going to be anywhere near Parramatta before 6.30pm, with work and football drop-offs to do. Add to that some key train cancellations causing delays at Strathfield, and this would be quite an abridged pre-match at the Woolpack, enough time for a swift schooner amongst familiar faces from Qatar and fellow Socceroos active supporters. There had been no communication between active fans and Football Australia until only the night before, so nothing was organised, this would be as organic an active home support as could be.

The short walk to Commbank Stadium suggested that there would be more than the anticipated 15,000 fans. We stopped for a fan interview with MMTV and met the friendly local police before heading in to Gate B, essentially the main supporter gate of the stadium. The stands were still quite empty, with less than 15 minutes to kick off, the mood was jovial; after all, there was no significance to this game other than to say ‘well done’ to the Socceroos for their exploits in Qatar.

After saying hi to ex-teammate Gerard, in his authentic Tim Cahill training top no less, and taking a spot in the traditional home of the RBB behind the goal, the usual faces were in place to try and get the crowd going. The stadium switched to mood lighting, the fire blowers fired, the fireworks boomed and after checking our watches and wondering when the players would come out, the show got underway. The welcome to country was clear and concise, the national anthem from Ecuador took a while to get to the words, and we could see that the Ecuador fans were in the usual international away section at the far end. Alas, with both sets of fans in yellow, it was difficult to differentiate home from away fans, but the noise after the anthem finished gave a good indication where the majority of the South American fans were located.

The Australian anthem was belted out with gusto, a high proportion of those around me singing ‘young and free’ by habit, and the players went into a huddle in the middle of the park as the captains sorted out who would kick off. There was genuine excitement at seeing international football again, and with Aidan O’Niell in the team, there was anticipation for more debuts and cameos during the evening.

Australia started brightly, attacking towards the Ecuador fans at the far end, but they had to watch out for the tricky Brighton attacker Jeremy Sarmiento who was sharp on the ball with fast feet. A free kick was awarded out left as the Socceroos attacked. Craig Goodwin lifted in a cross, after his trademark stuttering run-up, his cross was somehow reached by Mitch Duke, who fired the ball back across the goal and there was Jackson Irvine to sweep the ball home at the far post for an excellent opening goal. Suspicion of offside, but look, no VAR!

A ridiculous dive up the Ecuador right saw Aziz Behich booked, deemed to have impeded his man by holding his shirt. The free kick was wasted, but recycled and Sarmiento evaded O’Niell’s over-commitment and lifted a cross in for Felix Torres to head home easily, right in front of us. The players celebrated at length, two of the Ecuador players down on their knees in prayer. The Socceroos fans didn’t like that one bit, and the Australian players looked gutted to have conceded so easily.

Cue a fantastic moment on the half-hour. Ecuador tried to play their way out from the back and got caught in a swarm of Socceroos players pressing high, Irvine’s long leg getting the touch to steal the ball and Awer Mabil absolutely lashing the ball into the roof of the net with an outstanding finish. Clinical, cut-throat, devastating. It was simply fantastic to see. Mitch Duke then tricked his way into the box but his shot was blocked, and the rebound hacked to safety.

Half-time seemed quick, as if they were making up time for the late start. Two players received caps from Football Australia CEO Jame Johnson. James Meredith was one, I can’t remember who was the other, but it was very low-key. The field was full of half-time heroes, and it all cleared away as I braved the beer queue to grab some fuel for the second half. Luckily it was fast-moving and I was back at my seat for the whistle, with cans instead of plastic glasses to avoid losing half of it en route.

We would now see the Socceroos shooting our way. It was exciting. The assistant referee riled up the home crowd with some questionable offsides, the instant replays allowing us to see just how ropey they were, but again, no VAR, so it didn’t matter – you win some and you lose some, them’s the breaks. Ecuador had a good chance when EPL star Moises Caicedo smashed in a shot from the edge of the area, but Maty Ryan was able to beat the searing shot away.

The Socceroos were denied a definite penalty by an incorrect offside call soon after, Jackson Irvine picking the ball up before having his legs whipped away from under him, and there were boos around the stadium for the assistant as the replay showed there was no offside at all. Bring back VAR, all is forgiven! Kye Rowles had a shot well saved after his central defensive partner Harry Souttar had headed another Goodwin free kick into a dangerous area. Brandon Borrello came on to huge acclaim but didn’t really hit the heights, Alex Robertson was locked in to the Socceroos with his debut and was busy, and then we had Marco Tilio and crowd favourite Garang Kuol come into the game late on. There was some Aussie Aggro as Robertson reached out to throttle his opponent, and almost an all-in as the referee tried to calm the players.

The Socceroos wrapped up the scoring with another VAR-free moment as Aziz Behich held his run and crossed for Kuol to stumble the ball home. There were perhaps two shouts for offside in that move, but the assistant must have used up all his offsides and the Socceroos took full advantage. The crowd singing for Awer Mabil after Kuol had scored was a head-slappingly bizarre moment, and then Milos Degenek went in for a thunderous challenge at the far end that had the crowd even more hyped up. The final whistle was met with cheers and applause, and that continued as the team took a lap of honour around the stadium. The Ecuador players disappeared from view, and didn’t seem interested in meeting their fans, who had turned out in good numbers.

The handful of flags and banners packed up, and the active support was straight off to the Woolpack. I was keen to see the post-match scene, and we had some of the players doing the rounds. Mitch Duke was signing shirts and taking selfies with the keen Wanderers faithful at the home end until chaperone Ann came along and rescued him to pantomime boos from the fans, and a shirtless Kye Rowles was showing off his impressive body art.

Photographers had their photographs taken as momentos of the occasion, media man Carlo played football with the young kids, and head of media Bec coralled the last of the players to get them back in the changing rooms. Last ditch efforts by young fans to acquire shorts and socks were ignored by players and the goals were removed immediately, as if to cleanse Commbank Stadium of this horrid round-ball game.

I headed off back to the Woolpack to rejoin the active fans, intercepting the friends and family as they came out. I was asked if I was part of Jackson Irvine’s family, as I had the 22 on my back, and got chatting to some family of Aiden O’Niell, who were so proud of him making his debut today.

One beer was enough – I had to be home and fresh for the next day, and was fortunate that Carla was heading past my house and jumped in with her for the ride home. Nice one Carla!

Tonight had been a strange evening. I switched from work to play way too late in the day, endured issues with transport to the game (there’ll be none of that in July, right?), the stadium was maybe at 50% capacity despite claims of a 20,000 crowd, and the crowd had been a difficult one to stimulate into action. Fair play to Ben, who reprised his role from the Brisbane farewell game, and Hugo, who helped make the noise and did have the whole stadium going on a couple of occasions. No chance of making it down to Melbourne – the cost of living crisis is culling some of the extras from the budget and it was too difficult to justify a night in Melbourne when there’s mouths to feed and work to be done. Here’s looking forward to the next Socceroos game; Melbourne you’re in for a treat, and hopefully your ‘welcome home’ crowd will be a bit more lively than this one.

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