Australia’s 3-2 defeat of Syria in their final group game in the AFC Cup had resonance beyond the scoreline and the official booking of the Socceroos into the next round.
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On Saturday night the Australian football-supporting population will assemble.
Friends will gather around living rooms, to bathe in the manna-from-heaven glow of prime time football. Pubs will swell and sway, and chilled masses will huddle, packed into city squares and parks. The bellowing congregation will come together to worship, and their cheers will form a tailwind the Socceroos will feel from 13,887 kilometres away, we hope.
The World Cup, a spangling quadrennial jamboree of international football, is a furious gumbo of emotions, desires, prejudices and money. Over the next few weeks, we’ll all experience bilious rises in nationalistic passion that in any other context might be troubling but, when prompted by a villainous foul or pitiful own-goal, seem perfectly natural.
There will be heroes and scapegoats. Narratives will wash through the occasion like debris in a flood, and we’ll have to duck and dive, or else be clattered and swept away. In a sky filled with stars, some will shoot across the scene, dazzling and thrilling us, emerging without warning from small, hidden pockets on the periphery. Hope will be invested, perilously, into the talent and mettle of strangers, and it will leak out onto the turf, bleeding from a wound inflicted by some tragic defeat.
The market value of a chosen few will balloon into new grotesque stratospheres. Manic episodes, punctuated by white-hot takes, will run through the community like a plague. High drama will stretch the stomach and pound the chest. Grown men will cry, and camera operators will be ready with their telescopic zoom.
And so, Australian supporters armed with modest expectations, will take part from a distance. A $15 fee means every game is available to us live, and on demand the next morning. 2am and 5am kick offs will test our commitment, but nearly every fixture has a tasty crumb – Russia vs Egypt, for instance, at 4.00 am Australia time on June 20 might hold some unmissable Mo Salah dribble, itself worth the sleep debt.
Naturally, this will all play out, popping and whizzing and thumping, under the oppressive cloud of modern Russia, whose government, let’s not forget, is likely responsible for a recent assassination on British soil. This is a country whose national footballing body largely responded to the vicious hooliganism their fans committed during Euro 2016 with calls of ‘well done lads’, ‘more of the same’, and a polite round of applause.
The likelihood of incidents of racist abuse being hurled down on black players – if this season’s reports are anything to go by – is worryingly high. FIFA president Gianni Infantino has said referees have the right to abandon matches if they become blighted by racist abuse.
And, of course, we will have the VAR to deal with. Again, in theory, no one would want a World Cup final decided by a goal that a video assistant might have easily ruled out for offside, or handball, but Australian football fans can testify in particular to how the practical reality of the VAR’s integration can hurt more than it helps.
One wonders what will happen if Russia, in a crunch match, are the victims of a VAR blunder, and what brand of strange new violence the anger that spurs will manifest as. One wonders, in fact, whether Russia have put in place subversive mechanisms to ensure a blunder of that kind does not happen to the host nation.
No, we must tow ourselves out of this muck; the bad side of football is always there, a stinking mire from which the blooms of the game grow and blossom, concealing the boggy underworld. We can’t let the pretty colours stupefy us into ignoring football’s grubby realities, but those blooms are beautiful, and are worth admiring no matter how putrid the ground from which they sprung may be. Daniel Arzani is the youngest bud present in Russia, and we’re all yearning for him to blossom under the world’s gaze.
Kylian Mbappé, Marcus Rashford, and Gabriel Jesus are three more of the best 21-and-unders. Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo, and of course Lionel Messi will be there too. The Roar’s Top 50 list of Russia 2018’s most influential players has now been published in its entirety, so if you’re in need of some pre-match reading on Saturday, get stuck in.
For the Socceroos and their fans, this will be a strange few weeks. We’ll have to resist drawing too much out of the Roos’ performances; this is essentially a one-off tourney for us, what with Bert van Marwijk temping in the job. Graham Arnold may have a totally different approach in mind, and a hard reset may be hit regardless of how we do in Russia.
The slog of qualification tempered excitement, but the pre-tournament friendlies all gave – on paper, at least – reason for that excitement to rise a little. The Roos haven’t faced a truly fearsome attack – unless you count Colombia – since the Confederations Cup, or the friendly against Brazil before that. We managed two draws and a loss in the Cup, and were smashed 4-0 by Brazil, all under Ange Postecoglou. Van Marwijk’s defence – we’re all looking at you Mark Milligan – will have to reckon with the attacking might of France.
We may emerge battered and limping, but that’s all part of competing at the big tourney. For all of its faults – and all of Australia’s shortcomings – it’s impossible to deny the magic present here. As much as the World Cup is about banding together with your countrymen and women, clad in national colours, it also shows how football permeates all international borders, crashes up against and sprays over social or ethnic divides.
Yell yourself hoarse for Australia, then go and dip a toe in Croatia’s electric midfield, or sample Nigeria’s rhythms. Watch Tunisia, or Morocco, or Switzerland. Write something and submit it to The Roar, unfurling a tactical wrinkle perhaps, or a World Cup diary, or a sonnet about your fifth straight 4.00 am kick-off.
We’ll all be four years older for the next one – and it hardly bears fathoming, in hellish Qatari heat, good lord – so have more than a fling with the World Cup this year; make it an all-in, romping romance.