Words by Max Grieve
Vertigo said that it just wouldn’t work, a World Cup diary not written from the World Cup, so they were kind enough to send me over to Brazil with the rest of the local media. Thirty hours later, wedged between David Basheer and Mark Bosnich in cattle class, we landed in Rio and hopped on the shuttle bus to take us down to Vitoria, where the Socceroos are based. I found the window seat next to Les Murray, and decided to shoot quick and shoot straight.
“Les,” I said. “Les, what are we hoping for? And what can we expect?”
Les launched into autopilot, and shot straight back. “Those are some tough questions Max, a couple of real doozies. We’re hoping to win it, obviously, but we shouldn’t expect to win it. We probably shouldn’t expect a brave loss in the final. We probably shouldn’t expect a heroic defeat in the semis. We probably shouldn’t expect a plucky beating in the quarters. Max— Max, stay with me here – we probably shouldn’t even expect a courageous loss in the second round. If I can be real with you, the best we can hope for at this World Cup is a Tim Cahill header hitting the crossbar against Chile.”
“Far out Les,” I said. “That sounds pretty rough.”
“I know,” said Les. “It’s a grim picture. But just because there’s no hope for the Socceroos doesn’t mean that they’re hopeless. Let’s have a look at it: our goalkeeper is the best in Belgium, the defenders still retain some of that Australian sporting brutality that’ll punch cultured football in the face, we’ve got a real bruiser in Mile Jedinak, a passer and a brain in Mark Bresciano, and Tim Cahill’s titanium forehead. Ange Postecoglou’s a decent coach, and there aren’t many colour combinations more radical than yellow and green! And hell, I reckon Phil Gould’s got another open letter in him! Stuff it!” he roared. “Let’s do it! Let’s go all the way!”
Les was out of his seat at this point, having torn off his seatbelt as he did a 180° flip and started stumbling around the still-moving bus, telling anyone who cared to listen about the victory parades up and down the country, green and gold ticker tape twinkling in the mid-winter sun, and kids from Perth to Brisbane to Darwin to Hobart shaving their heads in homage to Mark Bresciano’s iconic baldness. The bus slowed as we came down the mountain to Vitoria, and Les fell asleep again.
Les’ words ringing in my ears, I went for a walk. Vitoria’s a great city, but I won’t waste time telling you about it – I haven’t been sent to Brazil to talk about Brazil, after all. I needed to think about what it all meant, because Vertigo probably want something more from me than 474 words of total fiction.
It might have flown under your radar because it’s sport, but the World Cup is rolling around again this June and July, and we’re in it to win it. Well, we’re in it, anyway. Here’s the thing about this World Cup: it’s going to be great, but we have to get through supporting our own country first, so let’s talk about Australia. In our group are Spain (winners in 2010 and better than us), the Netherlands (runners-up in 2010 and better than us), and Chile (better than us by virtue of being South American), and from here, the game plan is to cover our eyes and hope that the World Cup punches us in the gut, not the face. Are we going to get through the group? Almost certainly not. Are we going to win a game? Nah. Are we going to score a goal? We can dream.
The other way to look at things is like this: we’ve got nothing to lose – except the three games. There’s a lot of talk of our impossible World Cup being the best possible preparation for next January’s Asian Cup, to be hosted in Australia, and even though it is, it’s not something that anyone should really be saying. Former captain and current legend Lucas Neill said last year, “The mere suggestion that our place at a World Cup should be used as a trial or practice for the purpose of gaining experience is beyond comprehension to me.” And it’s beyond comprehension for me too, Lucas! I simply cannot comprehend it.
After we’re knocked out, the World Cup gets really fun. We’re back in South America for the first time since 1978, and the continent expects big things from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay (points to anyone who remembered that Ecuador qualified). The Spaniards and the Germans come as the two best countries in world football, and Belgium, France, the Ivory Coast, the United States, Russia and Switzerland mean that there’s more dark horses than a midnight Melbourne Cup.
It’s a golden-age World Cup: the field is so strong that Australia is ranked as the worst team in the competition, and it’s the last one before we have to deal with Russia, Qatar, and everything after that. What this tournament has a lot of – and this makes it a lot easier to write about what is essentially a few weeks of men running around on grass – is narrative. It’s being held in Brazil, the spiritual home of the sport. But get ready for a plot twist, because BANG! Brazilians love their football, but they might also love their adequate social services more than two mega sporting events in two years – the 2016 Olympics are in Rio, remember – and hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets during the Confederations Cup in Brazil last year. So WHAM! The pressure is on Brazil to win the tournament, unite the country in victory, and save the President before something from space blows everything up or whatever – the point is that it’s going to be exciting to watch.
I’ll be back to consider the state of things after our opening game, against Chile at 8am on June 14, and every few days after that until the damn thing’s all played out. In the meantime, Australia and the Socceroos: onwards and upwards! Well, onwards, anyway.
You can follow Max on twitter @maxjgri