The homage paid to Shinji Ono by the Western Sydney Wanderers faithful last Saturday at Parramatta Stadium was a highpoint after a fortnight of sadness and tragedy in sport. It was goosebumps material.
I haven’t seen a bunch of Westies so passionately lauding a Japanese subject since the early 80s at the Sundowner in Punchbowl, when Chisel played “The Rising Sun”. But it was more dignified than that. (No, really!)
As the 34-year-old former Japanese international took the field for his final regular season A-League game at Wanderland, the active supporters group, the Red and Black Bloc, held aloft an enormous and quite beautiful banner featuring a portrait of the club’s marquee man that had an appropriately Japanese art style about it.
Either side of the main banner were two banners showing the number 21, Ono’s jersey number, and some Japanese text, which I never did get translated. (Roar crowd… anyone?)
There was confetti, fireworks, Shinji masks and the torch-like effect of hundreds of mobile phones held aloft in the grandstands, as well as a range of lovingly crafted, appreciative signs on display all around the stadium. The word “tensai” (Japanese for genius or master) got a good run.
In the 21st minute, again a reference to his jersey number, there were more fireworks, more confetti and the Red and Black Bloc started up a chant. When they called “Shinji!” from the northern end of the ground, the grandstands replied in unison “ONO!” and it was repeated over and over again at such a volume it was almost deafening, even from inside the ABC Radio broadcast box.
Now, I go right back to the days of the awe-inspiring “Lillee, Lillee, Lillee!” chants at the SCG, that gradually accelerated with great fast bower’s run up, so I’m not new to the sights and sounds of goosebump-making mass adulation. I’ve been at Lang Park when the Queensland Origin side runs out and heard the thunderous roar of the crowd.
But there was something different, something special about this surge of support for Shinji Ono. And it took me a while to put my finger on it. The answer started to unfold for me when, in the 89th minute, Ono was substituted – coach Tony Popovic’s way of letting the crowd once again show their appreciation for the individual.
As the crowd roared, the slightly-built star stood on the sideline and gave a respectful little Japanese bow. The crowd went nuts.
What dawned on me about the nature of the very vocal and visual support was that it wasn’t intended to rev up the little red-and-black wearing tensai, it was simply an expression of appreciation and adoration. A tribute to what he’d brought to the club.
Sure, the Wanderers decided to let Ono go. Indeed he hasn’t been as influential this season as he was last season, when at least two of the goals he scored were gobsmackingly gorgeous. His delicate chip over the keeper from just outside the box against Brisbane and the lobbed pass over the defence that he regathered and scored from against Wellington will live long in my memory.
And yes, I’ve seen other leading lights in various sports sent off with glorious shows of appreciation from their faithful supporters. But Shinji Ono couldn’t be more different to a Dennis Lillee, or a Barry Hall or a Freddy Fittler.
He was in the twilight of his career when he arrived at Western Sydney. He was not glamorous. Let’s face it, as a Wanderers fan, hearing that Sydney FC were getting Alessandro Del Piero, Newcastle were getting Emile Heskey and we were getting Shinji was like hearing that two of you colleagues were bringing George Clooney and Brad Pitt to the office Christmas party, while your date was the nerdy little guy from IT.
Shinji Ono didn’t win over fans by being physically imposing or handsome, by getting belted and bravely playing on, or by being cocky and aggro or saying outrageous things. He was polite, technically outstanding, and, ok, I’ll say it: Asian.
Walk around any public place in any major city in Australia and how many Asian faces do you see? It’s quite clear the Asian population is growing rapidly. You can like it, love it, or resent it (as I know some do) but the truth is that’s who we are now. The wonderful thing about the A-League is it reflects and represents that reality.
If a bunch of Westies can worship a smiling, polite, 30-something Japanese guy, that’s impressive. That’s important. That’s why I went home feeling so warm and fuzzy on Saturday night.