Every family has one. The family member who missed the sports gene: the blasphemer who doesn’t know their dropkick from their handball, their union from their league; the unbeliever in their midst.
I have grown up surrounded by followers of a certain AFL football team and sat through many a forensic recounting of Last Night’s Game. I have witnessed – from behind glazed eyeballs – fists punched triumphantly in the air and knuckles dragged along the carpet. And I have silently rejoiced that no sport would ever have that kind of grip on me.
And then I discovered World Cup soccer.
My epiphany took place in 2006 when my children were quite young. I was so enamoured of the game that during the half time break, I would tie ‘goal’ strings at each end of the room and make the kids play balloon soccer with me. It was a shock us all. They well knew my lack of a spectator gene. Clueless, I would cheer them on every weekend from the sidelines when the other parents did. Basketball, footy, cricket – I had no idea what was going on.
But soccer was a game I could follow; at least I could see where the ball was most of the time. Eleven players just don’t take up that much space on a pitch. Ten outfield players and one goalkeeper.
Sometimes I think it’s the existence of the goalkeeper that binds me to soccer.
That most courageous of players: the one to blame every time a goal sneaks through to the back of the net; the one to watch – mesmerised – every time a ball is deflected from its trajectory by an airborne glove or body. These players are warriors with nerves of steel. Watching them watching the ball as it comes at them at high velocity gives an insight into the power of the human will. They do not flinch.
My all-time favourite is Guillermo Ochoa, World Cup goalkeeper for Mexico from 2006 to the present day. Back in 2006, the crowd chanted ‘Ochoaaaaaaaaa’ at deafening volume around the stadium and in my lounge room. I think of him as ‘little Ochoa’ which sounds ridiculous considering he’s every bit of 1.85m tall. But most of the other goalkeepers tower over him. (Fun fact: Mexico is the shortest team on average of the 32 teams in Qatar.)
My passion for the beautiful game is as much a mystery to me as to my nearest and dearest.
But only at the highest level. I’m talking crème de la crème. My soccer switch only activates once every four years. I’m not proud of it. I’m not ashamed of it either. If this level of skill is what it takes to trigger the sport fanatic in me, I will happily surrender.
Unfortunately, far from creating a bond with the rest of my tribe, my obsession has created controversy and outrage. How dare I prefer this sport of foreigners and fakers? Of underfed overactors? Voices have been raised in protest at my defence of the forced foul and my acceptance of the dive as a quasi-legitimate part of a game that relies not just on skill and luck but on tactics. It’s like a balletic game of chess, I tell them. It doesn’t rely on brute strength and pile-ons like other forms of football.
My family simply don’t see how such a low scoring game can be any kind of spectacle.
For me, it reinforces the absolute necessity of watching every second of play for fear of missing out on a goal that might be the only one scored. This year I went so far as to enquire into the cost of a reticulated wall bracket for the television so I could see the screen from the kitchen bench when I’m making my pre-dawn breakfast. (Kick off time in the southern hemisphere is unfashionably early.)
Nor do my nearest and dearest have patience with my shifting loyalties. After the Socceroos are eliminated, my allegiance can be won in any number of unworthy ways: the most engaging goalkeeper (once Mexico has been eliminated), the most animated coach (Herrera, Mexico 2014, hands down), the best uniform (France does exceptional uniform as anyone who’s caught a train or attended a Bastille Day celebration will tell you) or an inspired shooter like Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
This year I’ve found the underdog hard to resist.
This tournament had plenty of upsets until the latest semi-final results. The two underdogs of the remaining four teams are playing for third place. Of the two, I support Morocco – the team with the least successful track record or, as I see it, the one with the most to gain.
The final is a play-off between two high achievers: France and Argentina. I’ll be up before the crack of dawn baking muffins and waiting for a sign. Last Thursday morning’s rainbow over my house sealed Morocco’s fate for reasons too outlandish to divulge here. Suffice to say I knew then it would be a French victory. Sometime before sunrise on Monday, the winner of the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be decided, SBS’s wall-to-wall coverage will end and normal transmission will resume. Until 2026.