A match-day stroll through Melbourne’s laneways on this warm January afternoon would be a strong wake-up call for the FFA’s big wigs.
Melbourne has long been looked down upon as a ‘second-rate’ footballing city due to a perceived fixation on the metropolis of Sydney from the Australian soccer elite. It's a prejudice that has always been the center of debate in a city that prides itself as the ‘Sporting Capital of the World’.
Today is a Socceroos game day, the beginning of the Asian Cup. The pubs and bars are blaring out the pre-match build up and decked out in patriotic green and gold flags to celebrate the occasion. There’s a buzz about town that’s building as fast as the storm clouds in the distance. It’s the first time in over three years that the national team has come to town and the chance to see them in action is not one to be missed.
A quick stroll along the banks of the Yarra River has you at the base of AAMI Park teeming with golden shirts. The line for the pre-match drink is forming around the corner whilst youngsters have packed the training park next door with makeshift scratch matches. The energy, matching the pre-game tunes, is high.
The past five years has seen football establish a new cult following in this city. The arrival of a second A-League club has led to the birth of Melbourne's very own Derby Day, which will easily sell out a fortnight in advance. On those days, traffic stops and roads close whilst Victory and City’s die-hards choose the middle of the street as their route of choice. Melbourne's youth, inspired by the atmospheres of European heavyweights, mimic such displays in their hometown and create an atmosphere no less thrilling.
The crowd slowly progresses into the stadium; a quick click through the turnstile presents an open view of a luscious green patch. Australia and Kuwait are going about their pre-game rituals, each individual player being presented to the crowd with a half-hearted cheer arising for every man in gold.
By the time we take our seat in the coverage of the river end, a chill has blown out the humid summer and a jumper is called upon — a regular necessity for any Melbourne football fan all year around.
Sitting to my left is an Italian family; to our right, an Iranian couple. It sounds like the beginning of a lousy joke, but it goes a ways toward illustrating the many cultures that have nurtured the game in Melbourne for so long. At a grassroots level, it was European immigrants who established their own teams over the years that now make up a local Premier League — one filled with a unique diversity and style that will forever be sown into the roots of the game in this city.
Also a part of that mosaic is the dedicated fans who make their way down to the numerous pubs and sports bars in the early hours of a Sunday morning to catch a glimpse of their beloved Premier League outfit. As is the life of an Australian football enthusiast, living on the other side of the globe is a nightmare for kick-offs. However, week-in, week-out, these dedicated few make sure they uphold their match day rituals, even thousands of miles away. By the time morning has shown its first light, the night's action has filtered through to become a point of discussion in the Flinders Lanes cafes. Champions League mornings have people fixated upon a single iPhone, marveling at the class of Europe's best.
With kick-off moments away, there’s an atmosphere of nervous potential floating around the stadium. The expectations of a proud sporting nation rest firmly on a new, young generation of players trying to live up to the highs reached by the past decade of Socceroos. Similarly, the success of football culture in this city sits upon the shoulders of Australia’s youth. Capitalising on a vibrant grassroots scene, football has looked for a breath of fresh air through the schools, courts and parks of this city. Many of the stars of tomorrow are sitting here, in this stadium, today.
This is football in Melbourne.
This feature was written by Jacob Arnott, founder of The TURF, an online football journal viewing the beautiful game through an Australian lens. Follow them as they share their adventures in the amazing world of Asian and Oceanian football.