I support two football clubs. Both of them, Ipswich Town and Wellington Phoenix, are pretty much crap. So crappy, in fact, that underwhelming labels like ‘mid-table’ and ‘under-achievers’ are the kind of stuff I can only dream about.
But I care deeply about both. And one advantage of caring deeply about crappy football teams is that on the rare occasions when everything comes together on the pitch and the scoreboard it produces within me a feeling that simply cannot be matched. Or explained: Perhaps like a massive biuld-up in the bowel of my psyche suddenly being cleared.
The principle reason why I trudge reluctantly to Westpac Stadium every fortnight to endure another evening of anger, sadness and frustration is the thought that maybe this will instead be the night when we shock Melbourne Victory – and ourselves – with a 3-0 win. And then I will get to sing ‘We’re gonna win the league’ with the Fever, the only other people who understand just how great it feels. Or, for that matter, just how important it is to have a sense of humour when you support a crappy team. Because, without one, you will eventually be driven down a long slow path to insanity. Believe me, I know.
It is a rather sad indictment on my two clubs that my favourite time of the football year is May to August. In other words, when neither is playing. Because then I can live my life without the bi-weekly threat of their latest calamity, embarrassment or heartbreak. And it just so happens that once every four years this part of my calendar year is made even more enjoyable by the Fifa World Cup. Because one of the many things I love about the World Cup is that it comes with no accompanying angst. As a neutral I can simply relax and enjoy it.
Or can I? Because it is right about now during any World Cup – a week in – that I start getting dogged by disturbing flashbacks. Because this is when teams start to get knocked out, teams that other people care deeply about, and the collective sight of their misery on my TV also makes me feel miserable. It is a feeling that I recognise only too well.
A couple of months back I was chatting to a young man from Argentina who was visiting New Zealand at the time. I asked him if he thought Argentina could win this year’s World Cup. To my initial surprise his was face suddenly consumed by a look of terror. But because I understand the psychology of football fandom I was able to work it out without having to question him any further. Here was a young man who loved football and loved his country. And he knew that this year’s World Cup presented him with the possibility of producing the greatest moment of his short life. But the reality was that it would probably end instead in disaster; a disaster that would leave him permanently scarred. That is what terrified him. I tried to make things better by mentioning how I was old enough to remember both of his country’s two World Cup triumphs and how I felt privileged to have witnessed them. I was being honest and trying to be sincere, but it only managed to make things worse. There was a look of indignation now. He was probably thinking to himself: Great, so the one thing I really want in life is probably never going to happen to me, but this overweight and bald New Zealander standing in front of me has seen it happen twice.
I thought of that young man as the television cameras panned endlessly across the distraught Argentinian supporters as their beloved La Albiceleste imploded before their eyes against Croatia on Friday morning. And I felt sick for them.
It has not been a great tournament so far for the South American contingent. Peru exited in the match prior to Argentina’s nightmare against Croatia, while Colombia still have work ahead to successfully navigate the group stages. Brazil is splattering along and while Uruguay is looking solid, it is about to face far greater challenges than Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is a shame, because what South America brings to every World Cup is contenders, tradition, a host of fabulous players, and hordes of deeply passionate supporters that add spectacle and make an incredible noise wherever they go. But they also do heartbreak better than anybody else. Both players and supporters. And when the eliminations or the shocking performances start then it makes for particularly tough viewing.
And Friday morning was tough. Peru’s fabulous 40,000 supporters had been one of the highlights of the tournament for me. You would have to be over 40-years of age to remember the last sighting of the famous white and red shirt at a World Cup. And it quickly became apparent that both the Peruvian players and their supporters were driven by the desperation of their long wait. They were not going waste one minute of this. And they did not. But you had to feel for them on Friday morning. I mean, seriously, was eight days and two 0-1 defeats worth a 36-year wait, a Public Holiday after qualifying, and seven months of obsessive celebration? Interestingly, once they have all returned home they will probably think it was. Largely because it is far better than the alternative – yet another failure to qualify. But the tears and the obvious distress witnessed on Friday morning would leave most watching to think otherwise.
In the game which followed, Croatia’s 3-0 win over Argentina, Argentina was not even eliminated but its supporters were left in a worse state than Peru’s. The expectation is so much higher for Argentina and the display was so much worse than Peru’s plucky, and largely unlucky, efforts. The pre-tournament look of terror was justified in a performance that became increasingly shambolic the longer it went on. Right from the outset Argentina looked like somebody up an extremely dodgy ladder and few were surprised to see it eventually topple in a screaming heap of Latin American hysteria, leaving its shattered onlookers sobbing uncontrollably.
They do not sob in Serbia. Far too staunch for that. And when its national team went ahead 24 hours later against Switzerland its supporters were jubilant as the knock-out stages tantalisingly beckoned. But Switzerland achieved something that no other team had up to this point at Russia 2018 – it came from behind to win. And Xherdan Shaqiri’s late winner left Serbian hopes instead teetering on elimination. The Serbian supporters were left slumped in their seats, silent and dejected. I do not think I have ever seen a more conclusive visual image of pissed off. So very different but just as disturbing as South American grief. This is much more than mere football to a nation of people so heavily influenced by a belligerent nationalism born out of its horrific past.
First to depart were Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia on Thursday morning. Then Peru on Friday. Costa Rica on Saturday. Tunisia, Panama and Poland on Monday. It soon starts to resemble a mounting toll of dead bodies. And with each departure goes the hopes and dreams of each nation’s many thousands of travelling supporters, many of whom have made significant sacrifices to be there, and millions upon millions back home. And far bigger victims will follow shortly.
For goodness sake, the World Cup is supposed to be a celebration not a firing squad. In fact, if I had my way nobody would be eliminated. Knock-out World Cup football is grossly overrated.
I should be consoled by the bald fact that for every loser there is a winner. And the scenes accompanying each successful qualification, especially those plucked from the precipice, invariably produce scenes just as emotional and affecting as the failures. And they are always great to watch. No question. But each one is always tempered by the fact that apart from the one final nation left standing on July 16, every other nation will at some point suffer a horrible demise that I will be forced to endure from the comfort of my couch.
And now I must prepare and brace myself for the most frenetic four days of the tournament. The four days where the final group matches are played simultaneously, meaning four games a day to watch and a time when the pile of bodies will grow like no other during the tournament. And I will pine for the victims, not just the teams and players involved, but more the supporters. Those who care deeply.
Knock-out World Cup football is grossly overrated.