July 29, 2013

Watching sport Aussie-style

Ten days ago we went to the ANZ Stadium (aka Stadium Australia, Olympic Stadium and Homebush Stadium) in western Sydney to watch our football team, Manchester United, play the 'A-League All Stars'. The Stadium hosts rugby league, rugby union and AFL, which stands for Australian Football League, the sport of Australian rules football, which is more like another form of rugby than football. Here, proper football, as in America, is called soccer. I cannot call football soccer.

With hindsight, it would have been a much better idea had United played an established A-League team such as Sydney FC or Brisbane Roar, because this would have generated a greater sense of competition – and therefore atmosphere. As it was, the All Stars were chosen by the public, an expert panel and the team's head coach. Australia's national football team, the Socceroos, were playing South Korea in the East Asian Cup on the same night and I'm not sure what impact this had on selection. The Socceroos could only draw and the All Stars were thrashed 1-5.

I had been looking forward to the fact that the Stadium is so big and would be packed, I was sure, mostly with United fans. But the Stadium was soulless, and the practice on such occasions of playing inane 'popular' music right up until kick-off precluded the fans from practising their chants. In Europe, football is all about chanting and singing and bonding and urging on your team. A wall of sound such as occurs at United's 'Theatre of Dreams' is uplifting. I have seen very little of that at any of the sporting events I've attended since I've lived in Australia.

There was the first Ashes Test in Brisbane in spring 2010. The best the Australian fans could muster was the occasional 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi' or Waltzing Matilda, neither of which was impassioned or lengthy. By contrast, the Barmy Army was organised and very very vocal.

At our first football match at Lang Park in Brisbane, in February 2011, when the Roar thrashed Gold Coast United* 4-0, there was an animated group of home fans behind one of the goals. But around us, spectators seemed much more interested in chatting to their mates than the action on the field. The same thing happened at a couple of Super 14 Rugby fixtures we attended, and even when the Wallabies clashed with an old foe, the All Blacks. The crowd's attention span seemed very short. People would watch a bit of the game, go and chat to some mates they'd spotted a few rows away, then go and get drinks or something to eat. The rugby appeared not to be the main point of them being there.

Back in Sydney, we were by far the most high-spirited fans around. The row in front clapped politely when a goal was scored, by either side, but their bottoms didn't rise from their seats. And after the game, in the tediously long queue for entry into Olympic Park Station – how about some helpful signs, guys? – there was a distinct feeling of anticlimax. The greatest ebullience I saw all evening was during Mexican waves. The noise I would have preferred to hear was fans cheering the action, not shouting as their turn came to jump up and whoop.

I'm thinking I won't bother with big matches in future, unless I can choose where I sit, which is pretty impossible here with the all-powerful ticket agency duopoly, or I can go with a group of like-minded souls.

I like post-match highs. Perhaps if I attended a crucial AFL clash in Melbourne or Geelong (it's on my to-do list) or I could get my hands on a State of Origin** ticket, I would have a different experience. I wonder how many of the spectators at the ANZ Stadium considered themselves to be big sports fans. There seemed to be more of those gathered on the steps of the Opera House during the afternoon.
* mining investor Clive Palmer's unsuccessful attempt to own a football club
** an annual best-of-three rugby league series between Queensland and New South Wales

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