Goal Weekly, Monday 22 September 2008, p. 21.
It is only two years ago since Australia played in the World Cup in Germany in 2006, but already it seems like a significant part of our past. While the performances of the Socceroos were inspiring, the fans did their bit to make this an extraordinary occasion. There were roughly 60,000 Australians in Germany in June 2006, most without tickets, but there for the atmosphere and the off-field activities It was the largest outward movement of the Australian population since the Second World War. Books have already been written about the fansâ€™ experiences by Tony Wilson and Jesse Fink.
It was fascinating to watch the ways individuals and families responded to the occasion. Most supported Australia, some barracked for the country of their heritage, others had a bob each way. Some of my Croatian friends cut up Australian and Croatian shirts and sewed half of each together to reflect that support.
At matches the Australian national anthem was sung with a fervour not seen and heard since previous World Cup qualifiers in Australia against Iran and twice against Uruguay in Sydney and Melbourne. Yet for the most part the fans were in enormous good humour and their chants reflected that. There was much less of the staple Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi that seemingly features at every major Australian sporting event. Instead there was more invention as when â€˜You are red, you are white and youâ€™re going home tonight,â€™ and â€˜Your shirt looks like a tablecloth, da-da, da-daâ€™, was sung at the Croatians, and â€˜You only sing when youâ€™re whalingâ€™, at the Japanese.
In Kaiserslautern when a couple of fans tried to get those around them to join in offensive chants replete with crude language and racist overtones, one young coloured Aussie lad told them explicitly and clearly, â€˜We are a multicultural society and donâ€™t want any of that kind of thing hereâ€™. He clearly spoke on behalf of the surrounding Australian contingent, who collectively continued to ignore the drunken, would-be trouble makers who remained isolated throughout. Australian banners in the stadia showed that there was a clear mixture of old and new fans. Several were in non-English languages, particularly Greek, reinforcing the sense that Australia is a multicultural country, and many reflected the club loyalties of the various ethnic groups making up the diverse Australian fanbase.
In Australia the reception of the World Cup by the mass of the people was extraordinary. This was reflected in the media which seems to have underestimated the extent of popular enthusiasm. Large screens in major venues saw crowds of several thousands gather to watch matches. Federation Square in Melbourne was packed, with some people travelling from Geelong, 80 kilometres away, to watch matches on the big screen rather than at home or in a local hotel. Crowds in Federation Square for the four Australian matches ranged from 7000 to 12 000, with a similar number at Birrarung Marr. The games finished at anywhere between three and seven in the morning. After the Australiaâ€“Japan and Australiaâ€“Croatia games a significant number of those present at Federation Square, estimated at around 2000 on the former and 4000 on the latter occasion, marched to the steps of state parliament in Spring Street as if it were a political demonstration.
At the first march one man had a banner â€˜Guus for PMâ€™, and the parliament steps party lasted half an hour and included the singing of the national anthem. Sydneyâ€™s George Street was at a standstill in the mornings after games, with cars and pedestrians festooned with colours, shouting and celebrating.
Though the media had contributed to the build-up to the tournament and had done a great deal to promote interest and convey the extent to which the rest of the world had focused on it, the overwhelming impression is that members of the daily media were taken aback by the popular response. Many of those who had spent much of their lives denigrating â€˜this foreign gameâ€™ admitted that they had not experienced anything, either in Germany or in Australia, to match what they saw and in which they became involved. Typical is the reaction of Gary Lyon, former Melbourne AFL player and now anchor of the Melbourne version of the Channel 9 Footy Show:
It has taken a trip to the other side of the world, to witness the most amazing sporting festival you could imagine, to see the true game of football through the eyes of those who have been championing it for decades as the biggest sport on the planet. â€¦ the World Cup is a seething mass of emotion where the passion generated by coaches, players and supporters is the closest thing to war without weapons that you are likely to find. The focus on the games reduces presidents and prime ministers to the same level as factory workers and school kids; that of the everyday sports fan.
This article draws on Roy Hay and Tony Joel, â€˜Footballâ€™s World Cup and its fansâ€”reflections on national styles: A photo essay on Germany 2006,â€™ Soccer and Society, 8, no. 1, January 2007, pp. 1â€“32.